Sooner or later, all presidential campaigns go negative, the good guys, as well as the bad guys. The “we’re better than that” conceit is a self-delusion shared by losing campaigns everywhere.
Of course there are two basic ways to go negative — with lies and sleaze, or with integrity and class. Dems should always chose the latter option, and usually do.
The key decision associated with going negative is timing. The McCain campaign has made their decision. As Michael Kranish observes in the lede of his article “McCain ads go negative early on Obama” in the Thursday edition of The Boston Globe:
By launching a series of TV ads that ridicule Senator Barack Obama and question his readiness to be president, Senator John McCain has made a strategic decision to go directly negative much earlier than usual in the presidential race.
Actually, it’s been going on a little longer, as Kranish notes,
The Wisconsin Advertising Project, which monitors campaign ad spending nationwide, reported yesterday that of the $48 million worth of ads the two campaigns have aired since Obama clinched the nomination in early June, 90 percent of Obama’s ads have been positive and mostly about himself, while about one-third of McCain’s commercials referred to Obama negatively.
Obama has to go negative and he will. The only question is will it be too late to help him win? Who Obama should not be on the morning after election day is the loser who sniffs before TV reporters “At least we kept on the high road. I’m proud of my campaign.”
The high road strategy makes sense for the candidate who is protecting a lead in the primary season, because party unity among contenders’ supporters is paramount. But it makes little sense in the general election campaign when surrounded by snarling jackals. If anyone in Obama’s campaign has doubts that McCain’s strategists will go as low as is neccessary to win, Daily Kos writer Dengre has a sobering reality check.
No, I don’t think Obama should personally get into it with McCain’s mud-slingers. But he would do well to heed Ed Kilgore’s advice, in his Friday post,
…Obama really does need to spend less time on broad-based indictments of “Washington” or “lobbyists” or “politics as usual,” and spend a lot more time talking about his actual opponent, the actual opposing party, and the actual incumbent that links them.
McCain and his strategists understand that, to work, a negative meme has to be launched early and hammered throughout the campaign. Then, in the closing days of the general election, McCain can affect a ‘high road’ persona, the dirty work having been done.
So far Obama’s attacks against McCain have been a little too tame. The Obama campaign needs to define the precise meme they want to hang on McCain and implement a strategy to make it stick. Easier said than done, but a challenge that has to be made — and soon — for Democrats to take the white house.