Negative Campaigns Are Here to Stay

Friday, 07 Sep 2012 12:45 PM

By Susan Estrich

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In backgrounding reporters in advance of the Democratic convention, organizers reportedly stressed that the tone in Charlotte would be much more optimistic than that in Tampa: that Democrats are looking "forward," focusing on the future, even as they trumpet President Obama's past accomplishments.

Good try, my friends.

shirley-williams.jpg
Shirley Williams served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004.
(Getty Images)
I don't think the word "optimism" is ever going to be associated with this presidential campaign. Negative, ugly, a total turnoff, a triumph of tactics over strategic vision, an endless parade of negative ads, many of them out there with no clue as to who paid for them.

I am cautiously optimistic that at the end of it the president will win. My optimism is cautious because of the economy, of course. Incumbents do well in good economies. If the economy were buzzing, Obama would be a shoe-in, singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

The way for an incumbent to win re-election in a tough economy is basically to make his opponent look like a bigger risk, which may not be that hard to do with the Romney-Ryan ticket.

But am I optimistic about the campaign?

Actually, with the impact of super-PACs and anonymous negative ads, and given the bad economy, the questions about where Mitt Romney actually stands, and the questions about where Paul Ryan has stood in the past, I think this one may win the prize for rock-solid unpleasantness.

Whichever side you happen to be on, that is really, really bad news. For the country, I mean.

I had the pleasure of attending a dinner for Shirley Williams, actually Baroness Williams of Crosby, who first ran for office in her 20s, was elected to Parliament as a Labour Member in her 30s, co-founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004.

Oh, yes, she is also a professor emeritus at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. And the first thing she said to her assembled guests was that she was worried about the state of American politics.

With reason. Part of it is the money, no question about that, which is pumping out an unlimited supply of negative ads without even the disclosure that the United States Supreme Court thought it was still preserving in Citizens United.

Part of it is the natural evolution — really devolution — of partisan politics and the media coverage of it.

If the day-to-day functioning of politics leaves you feeling like you want to take a shower; if the screaming and yelling on television by people being paid to scream and yell along party lines passes for news during the rest of the year; if the endless bickering over nothing and the preference, particularly in Congress, for attacking rather than doing is dominant during the three and three-quarter years when a presidential campaign is not going strong; then what do you expect to see when it is?

As much as people claim to hate negative ads, you won't find a political pro who would urge either Obama or Romney to run, in the words of Professor (not President) Michael Dukakis, a "strong and positive campaign." The phrase has become an oxymoron.

Then there's the reality of social media. Many people thought that social media might be the salvation of politics, bringing into the process the young non-voters who have literally grown up without ever seeing politics as a positive force in their lives. Many people thought social media might unleash new forms of activism that were not dependent on big money and bad ads.

Not yet. Not even close. Social media discourse is riddled with misinformation and invective, without even the fig leaf of fact checking. Maybe that will change. Maybe a new movement of reform is around the corner. But that corner looks very far away right now.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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