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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

February 24: For Democrats, “Going Negative” on Republicans Is Rational

I was reading a BuzzFeed post by Ben Smith on how Hillary Clinton just had to run a nasty general election campaign because she had nothing positive to build on when I just snapped at the idiocy of it all. I made an effort to contextualize “negative campaigning” at New York:

Smith is suggesting that going negative (or “comparative”) is the ugly person’s ugly alternative to the positive, inspiring kind of campaign Americans want and deserve.
But this year, at least, campaigning on the unicorns you will ride to Happyland on the cheers of millions of previously unheard Americans is, arguably, offering an illusion, if not a lie. That is indeed what Hillary Clinton keeps saying about Bernie Sanders’s message that he is uniquely capable of overcoming gridlock by conjuring up a mass movement that we’ve never seen before. Whether you agree with Clinton on that or you don’t, there is far less doubt about what Republicans will be able to accomplish if they win the White House while hanging on to control of Congress (and if the former happens, the odds of the latter are very high). A single executive order and a single (if big and very fat) budget-reconciliation bill could wipe out much of the Obama legacy in a matter of weeks. And that’s before you even get to executive-branch and judicial appointments — including perhaps multiple SCOTUS nominations — and the GOP’s own “positive” agenda of high-end tax cuts, tight money, “deregulated” fossil-fuel use, harassment of abortion and contraception providers, restricted voting rights, and (depending on the nominee) global unilateralism and adventurism.
This year’s Republican nomination contest is creating a vast storehouse of ripe targets for Democrats in a general election. Should they reject it all because it’s “negative?”…. I don’t think so.
Truth is, Bernie Sanders is just as likely as Hillary Clinton to “go negative” in a general election, and with good reason: His entire agenda depends on arousing so much popular anger at conservative perfidy that a “political revolution” — currently a complete nonstarter — becomes feasible. Even if Team Sanders has little but disdain for “centrism,” it will realize that even in this era of polarization, there are enough swing voters out there to justify a major effort to make sure Republicans can’t “occupy the center” themselves. And that means painting a lurid picture of what the country will look like if President Trump or Rubio or Cruz is allowed to stride into the White House at the head of an angry mob of activists who are infuriated they haven’t been allowed to turn the policy clock back to 1933.
No matter how much both parties talk about Barack Obama this year, he won’t be on the ballot in November and thus this cannot entirely be a referendum on his tenure in office. That makes it a “comparative” election almost by definition. If your opponent looks like a ravening wolf at the door, saying so early and often might be the best way in the current environment to make yourself look pretty.

As the saying goes, it has the added advantage of being true.

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