I got a call a couple of weeks ago from a friend who also happens to be a local GOP party leader. He is upset with the negative tone of ads being run by the national party on behalf of his state’s beleaguered incumbent Republican senator. He wanted me to help him convince whoever gave the orders for the attack ads against the senator’s Democratic challenger that “instead of attacking the Democrat, we should be talking up our senator and all he’s done for the state.”
I sympathized with him, of course, because it would be nice if campaigns could be run between candidates that spent their time “talking up” their own positive attributes rather than pointing out their opponent’s flaws. It would be nice, but it’s not going to happen any time soon … and certainly not this time around.
His senator’s Democratic opponent or those supporting him have been running ads calling his man incompetent and a crook who long ago lost touch with the people he now wants to reelect him. These attacks and the general atmosphere in which this year’s campaigns are being fought have already put my friend’s senator on the defensive and could conceivably cost him his Senate seat.
He’s responding in kind by going after his opponent’s record and character … and by linking him with national Democrats who would, he alleges, take the country in a direction that wouldn’t make most of his state’s voters very happy. This is just the sort of approach Republicans are taking across the country this year.
My friend doesn’t like what’s happening and wonders why it has to be this way.
The answer is obvious when you think about it. It doesn’t take a political genius to realize that if the question voters will decide in November is whether they’re happy with the performance of the GOP in power, the Democrats will win. Republicans simply cannot allow the November elections to be a referendum on the job they’ve done.
Instead, they want voters to go to the polls asking themselves a somewhat different question. They want them to ask themselves instead whether they are ready to risk turning things over to the Democrats because Republicans know that unpopular as they are right now, many voters aren’t sure the Democrats represent much of an answer.
Indeed, a major difference between voter attitudes this year and in 1994 when Congress last changed hands is that this year voters seem reluctant to rush into the other party’s hands as they did that year. They are as upset with Washington and the job Republicans are doing as they were with the Democrats back then. Their anger could turn into an anti -Republican tsunami that could turn both Houses of Congress over to the Democrats, but that hasn’t happened yet for the simple reason that they’re far from sure they want to turn things over to a Democratic party with an agenda they have a difficult time stomaching.
Thus, the president is playing on the knowledge that even though millions of Americans are unhappy with the war in Iraq, they aren’t sure the Democrats can be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to national security. He’s betting that in the final moments, voters will find themselves unable to risk putting the nation’s future security in the hands of a party that seem to believe we rather than our enemies are the root cause of the world’s problems.
And Republican congressmen and senators are telling people “if you think we’re awful, get a load of those other guys.” They can and do make the case that if you are upset with runaway government spending, for example, that the Democrats in power would spend even more recklessly.
This approach might just work unless people are so upset with the GOP that they just don’t care or Democrats can actually convince voters between now and November that they can be trusted on national security questions and have plans to reign in or even reduce the size and scope of government, That, of course, isn’t likely to happen.
Which get us back to the campaign and my friend’s question. Both parties this year are waging and will continue to wage incredibly negative campaigns. The Democrats have to convince voters that the Republicans are so bad they have to be turned out even if it means turning power over to them and the Republicans have to argue that bad as they may be, they are at least preferable to those accursed Democrats.
Neither party, given what they have to accomplish, will prevail by being nice or stressing the positive.
It just isn’t that sort of year.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).