The politics of negativity
are now beginning to focus on the campaign for president. Recent polls
show shrinking leads for the presumed frontrunners and a
closer-than-expected race in both parties. It is time for voters to pay
even closer attention to the conduct of the candidates. The strategies
they employ as the races tighten provide some insight into the
It is customary to package a
candidate, just as you would a product to be sold by a Madison Avenue
advertising agency. Research determines the issues on the minds of the
voters and the weaknesses of the opponents. The campaign then develops
a theme, to be repeated in television and newspaper advertisements and
persistently emphasized by the candidate — called “staying on message”
— in speeches and interviews.
Hillary Clinton’s theme was that she is the candidate with experience,
acquired as first lady and as senator from New York. Her implication
was that Barack Obama is not qualified to be president because of a
lack of experience. This worked for a while because the Clinton name
was already famous and Barack Obama was not then well known throughout
However, Obama was able to recognize Americans’ disdain for partisan
bickering in Washington and for the alienation of the people from
government. His theme was change. Obama promised a government of
reconciliation that was transparent and operated for the benefit of the
citizens, rather than just corporate interests.
As time went by, the theme of change trumped experience, and Obama
began to rise in the polls. The strategy of the Hillary camp was to
assert that she was the real agent of change, but that was not enough.
People like Obama, and his negatives are very low. Not surprisingly,
Hillary’s are very high. His positive acceptance by so many people
threatened Hillary’s success.
The standard political response is to “go negative.” This is done with
supporters and staff, so that the candidate cannot be accused of dirty
tricks. Comments do not attack the soundness of political positions,
but the very character of the opponent. The first snipe was to report
that Obama is motivated by ambition because he wrote an essay saying he
wanted to be president when in kindergarten.
The Clinton campaign laughed that comment off as a joke, but the next
shot was not at all funny. Bill Shaheen, Hillary’s coordinator in New
Hampshire, predicted that Obama’s teenage drug use, which he admitted
in his biography, “Dreams from My Father,” would be picked up by the
Republicans if Obama becomes the Democratic nominee.
Hillary apologized and Shaheen was forced to step down. However, Mark
Penn, a Clinton advisor, repeated the incident on television to make
sure that the point was not lost on the nation.
Then Bill Clinton made the foolish and insulting remark on The Charlie
Rose Show on Dec. 14 that it would be a roll of the dice to elect as
president someone as young and inexperienced as Obama. The fact is that
Bill Clinton became president at the age of 46, the same age as Obama.
Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the Oval Office at 42, and John F.
Kennedy became president at 43.
Through this vituperation, Obama has appeared to be more mature and
presidential than his detractors. He has dismissed the remarks as the
unfortunate comments of a candidate whose campaign is in trouble. To
those who followed the attacks, it seems like the old politics.
Voters should not be deceived into believing that Hillary represents
change, even as she behaves like the old guard. The past seven years
under George Bush have established the need for a real change in
“Man, some of the presidential candidates won’t survive this January.”