Realistic Fearmongering: Why Negative Campaigning Will Make Sense for the Democratic Nominee in ’16

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Wolf Growling with Head in Doorway
Nightmare of Republican Policies Closer to Realization Than the Dream of Progressive AgendaPhoto: Jan Stromme/(c) Jan Stromme

At BuzzFeed today, Ben Smith makes a very familiar argument about Hillary Clinton’s alleged shortcomings: She’s so unlovable, she has no choice but to run a negative general-election campaign if she wins the nomination:

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If Hillary Clinton manages to beat Bernie Sanders, the early primaries have already revealed that there’s only one strategy for the general election against a Republican, be it Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz: Scorch the earth.

There was a scenario, which looks more like a fantasy, in which Clinton was a movement. Women in their twenties, thirties, and forties would rally to her the way black Americans rallied to Obama; she would run on her own mantle of change.

In reality, nobody is that excited about Hillary Clinton, and young voters, women and men — the foot soldiers of any Democratic Party movement — aren’t coming around. She lost a resounding 82% of voters under 30 in Nevada. Her campaign now rests on the hope that voters of color like her well enough, if nowhere near as much as they like Obama. And that means that when she faces a Republican, she will have to destroy him.

There was a scenario, which looks more like a fantasy, in which Clinton was a movement. Women in their twenties, thirties, and forties would rally to her the way black Americans rallied to Obama; she would run on her own mantle of change.

In reality, nobody is that excited about Hillary Clinton, and young voters, women and men — the foot soldiers of any Democratic Party movement — aren’t coming around. She lost a resounding 82% of voters under 30 in Nevada. Her campaign now rests on the hope that voters of color like her well enough, if nowhere near as much as they like Obama. And that means that when she faces a Republican, she will have to destroy him.

Putting aside the questionable assertion that the Kidz — as opposed to, say, labor and LGBT folk, and great big adult-advocacy groups — are “the foot soldiers of any Democratic Party movement,” 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” and doesn’t inspire the Kidz without whom no Democratic campaign is cool enough to support without shame? I don’t think so.

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.