Conventions are scripted to rouse the rabble on the floor. But the raw meat served up to conventioneers – and eagerly consumed by old and (especially) new media – has less appeal than ever. Conventional wisdom says these are partisan events, where contenders must define themselves. But that too often leads them to caricature their opponents, and defile themselves, as definition of the other side becomes misleading and manipulative distortion.
The political consultants who are paid to come up with such piffle will tell you that negative campaigning works. Truer to say the system works in spite of it, given the fact that less than half of eligible voters turn out to elect presidents.
What we think we learned in 2004 was that GOP “Swift boat” attacks on character sank John Kerry for Middle America, rather than the windsurfing Mr. Kerry himself. In fact, the most indelible wounds in politics are self-inflicted.
Michael Dukakis flexed his defense credentials by popping up like a prairie dog out of a tank turret, looking like Rocky the Squirrel.
George H.W. Bush felt our pain by shopping for socks in a recession, enchanted by the novelty of a bar-code scanner.
In 2004, both Kerry and George W. Bush had a firm grip on their political bases, so an inclusive appeal to the other side’s voters wasn’t as critical.
This time the winner will have to play a different game.
This time Obama’s promise of post-partisanship – and McCain’s history of political independence – will be more compelling to a larger share of the eligible electorate (disengaged nonvoters plus first-time voters plus independents) than any war waged by the political class to comfort the already-converted. So even the most jaded of us catch ourselves hoping for a departure from the cynical come-ons and social disease of the second-oldest profession.
Barack Obama hasn’t connected with the vital working-class slice of the Democratic hard core. John McCain lost in the closed primaries (where only registered Republican votes counted). So neither candidate is fully appealing to his parties’ traditional base. Which means either candidate can win – but only by reaching effectively across the aisle.
Campaigns that try don’t have it easy.
Last week, arguing that good policies don’t have an R, D or an “i” in front of them, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner didn’t stoop to reductive distortions. He made room for the possibility that Republicans of good faith – never a monolith, any more than Democrats are – might be looking for a reason to vote for Obama. Result? Warner was ignored by the folks on the floor and impaled by the professional punditariat.
But the national audience noticed. And by next week, this election won’t be about the thousands attending a convention, but about the millions of registered Democrats, Republicans and independents still very much in play.
There’s nothing uncivil about sharply attacking an opponent’s message and policies. But there are Republicans who support progressive taxation and want to end poverty. And there are Democrats who support free trade and a strong military. To them, and to independents, distortions and differences exaggerated for effect don’t impress.
And many of those differences aren’t what they seem. Some key accomplishments in the Clinton era carried forward signature elements of the (gasp!) Reagan agenda: NAFTA, welfare reform, the earned income tax credit, missile defense, fiscal restraint. Just as some key milestones in the Bush 41 administration were (groan!) long-lofted Democratic standards: the Americans with Disabilities Act, protection of wetlands, and the ’91 Clean Air Act.
It’s possible Obama lost nine of the last 14 Democratic primaries because his specifics aren’t yet up to the centrist, New Democrat standard set by former President Bill Clinton. It’s also possible McCain is losing the confidence of moderates with his aggressive tack toward evangelicals.
The left responds to the promise of a more compassionate world – the right, to the threat of a more violent one. The winning candidate will enlist both, leading us across the tightrope between fear and hope that defines every political contest.
President Ronald Reagan did it with skeptical lunch-bucket Democrats. Bill Clinton did it by pledging his devotion to skeptical blue collar Republicans and Reagan Democrats. Whatever the political minions claim, co-opting the opposition won’t signal weakness or mushiness to undecided voters looking for real solutions, this time around.
Bring back the real McCain.
Let’s see Obama’s new kind of politics reflected not just in prose, but in policy.
The one-third of the U.S. electorate that is in thrall to neither party and unimpressed by ideology will decide this election. They’re listening.