Warfare or Courtship in 2012?
02/05/2012 1 comentario
What sort of thing is a presidential campaign? Maybe a campaign is like a courtship. A candidate’s job is to woo the electorate, to win the people’s affection with charm, familiarity and compassion. Maybe a campaign is like a big version of “American Idol”. It is a contest over who is the most talented. In this mode, a candidate’s job is to endear himself to the people in the audience with likability and then wow them with his gifts. Maybe, on the other hand, hiring a president is like hiring a plumber. Voters aren’t really looking to fall in love with the guy; they just want someone who will fix the pipes. The candidate’s job is to list the 3 or 4 things he would do if elected and then to hammer home those deliverables again and again. (David Brooks – NYTimes – 01/05/2012)
You could make a case that most campaigns are a little of all three, though the proportions vary from year to year. In 2008, Obama ran an uplifting campaign that was part courtship and part “American Idol”. Richard Nixon, who lacked such charm, ran workmanlike, plumber campaigns, no pun intended. So far, though, 2012 presidential campaign is fitting into none of these categories. It’s being organized according to a different metaphor. This year, both organizations seem to visualize the campaign as a boxing match or a gang fight. Whichever side can hit the other side harder will somehow get awarded the champion’s belt. So far this year, both President Obama and Mitt Romney seem more passionate about denying the other side victory than about any plank in their own agendas. Both campaigns have developed contempt for their opponent, justifying their belief that everything is permitted. In both campaigns, you can see war-room mentality developing early. Attention spans shrink to a point. Gone is much awareness of the world outside campaign. All focus is on the news blip of the moment, answering volley for volley. If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they throw a bomb, you throw two. Both sides are extraordinarily willing to flout respectability to show that they are tough enough to bare the knuckles. In November, Romney campaign ran a blatantly dishonest ad in which President Obama purportedly admits that if the election is fought on the economy, he will lose. The quote was a distortion, but the effectiveness of the ad was in showing Republican professionals and primary voters that Romney was going to play by gangland rules, that he was tough enough and dishonest enough to do so, too. Last week, the Obama campaign ran a cheap-shot ad on the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of the ad was Bill Clinton effectively talking about the decision to kill the terrorist. But, in the middle, the Obama people threw in a low-minded attack on Romney. The slam made Clinton look small, it made Obama look small, it turned a moment of accomplishment into a political ploy, it did follow rules of gangland: At every second, attack; at every opportunity, drive a shiv between ribs.
This martial-, gangland-style of campaigning apparently makes the people in the campaigns feel hardheaded, professional and Machiavellian. But it’s not clear that it’s actually the best way to win an election. That’s because the style is based on a series of dubious assumptions: that the harshest language is the most persuasive to voters; that what feels good to you as a competitive combatant will also look most attractive to detached onlookers; that over the duration of a six-month campaign, daily combat will continue to look compelling rather than cumulatively revolting; that in a campaign dominated by “super PAC” negativity, a presidential candidate is better served by wading into the brawl rather than separating himself from it. The campaign-as-warfare metaphor may seem sensible to those inside the hothouse. It may make sense if you think today’s swing voters hunger for more combat, more harshness and more attack. But it’s probably bad sociology and terrible psychology, given the general disgust with conventional politics. If I were in the campaigns, I’d want to detach from the current rules of engagement and change the nature of campaign. If I were Obama, I’d play to his personal popularity and run “American Idol” campaign, likability, balance, safety and talent. If I were Mitt Romney, saddled with his personal diffidence, I’d run a plumber campaign, you may not love me, here’s four things I can do for you. These would be very different campaigns than the ones we are seeing: more positive psychology, less negative psychology. A few big messages about fundamental change, less obsession with the daily news cycle. More attention devoted to those turned off by politics, less to the hard-core denizens who are obsessed by it.