Attack politics

When you are attacked you have to deck your opponent.” Hillary Clinton

The Clintons didn’t invent attack politics. Candidates and parties have been going after each other since the earliest days of the republic. But some people, and some political parties, have always been better at it than others. And by the 1980s, the Republicans had become decidedly better at it than the Democrats. The extent of the gap became fully apparent in 1988, when George H.W. Bush hurled personal, frequently dishonest attacks at a hapless Michael Dukakis, who started fighting back only when it was too late. For some, the enduring image of Dukakis that year was the picture of the diminutive Massachusetts governor driving a tank, looking like Rocky the Squirrel; for me, it was the rendering of Dukakis as a giant pile of mud in Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” series.

Four years later, when Bill Clinton ran for president, he and his staff vowed not to make the same mistakes as Clinton’s predecessors. And while that partly meant changing ideology it also meant adjusting tactics. James Carville, then a newcomer to the national political scene, and George Stephanopoulos, who’d been through the Dukakis debacle, famously created a war room and a “Rapid Response Team” designed to counter every attack the other side launched, as quickly as possible. “Speed kills–Bush,” Carville used to say. And it did. One classic case occurred when Bush accused Clinton of raising taxes 142 times while he was the governor of Arkansas. As press accounts at the time reported, Clinton’s campaign quickly pushed back by showing that most of the alleged tax hikes were bogus–and that, by the same definition, Bush had raised taxes even more frequently.

True, the Clintons never gave up the war room mentality. But, then, they really couldn’t afford to do so, since it’s not like the right wing attack machine let up after the election–or even after the Clintons were gone. Just ask John Kerry, who made the same mistake that Dukakis did. His initial reaction to the attacks on his Vietnam record was to brush them off. By the time he began responding in kind, it was too late: The idea that Kerry had lied about his war record was already firmly entrenched in the public’s mind. It’s safe to assume that the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008 will face similar attacks–which is why a trigger-happy candidate is far preferable to one who is gun-shy. And that brings me to Obama’s performance, which I found even more satisfying than Clinton’s. Until now, we didn’t know whether Obama was capable of defending himself. In his short political career, he’s never faced the kind of determined, nasty competition Republicans put up in presidential elections. Now he has, and, at least in this first instance, he seems up to the challenge. Far from making him a hypocrite, it makes him that much more qualified to run for president. If you want to elevate the political discourse, the first thing you have to do is make sure you’re actually part of the discourse.

Far too many pundits seem to think presidential candidates must choose between positive and negative campaigns–between talking about ideas and issuing lofty rhetoric, on the one hand, and responding to criticisms or noting their opponents’ flaws, on the other. But the two can co-exist: Indeed, back in 1992, Bill Clinton was a master at this. He spent a lot of time responding rapidly to Bush, but he also spent a lot of time talking about the problems of average Americans–and offering some bold, creative ideas for addressing them. And precisely because he did succeed in fending off Bush’s attacks, he even got a chance to put some of those ideas into practice.


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