Game's the Same, Just More Fierce

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes that—for him—most presidential campaigns are some combination of reality show, romantic courtship, and a straightforward job application. This year, however, is different. Rather than try to appeal to the best of the public, Brooks says that both Romney and Obama have gone for the jugular in a ruthless effort to destroy each other. It suffices to say that the Times columnist is very disappointed in this development:

[B]oth President Obama and Mitt Romney seem more passionate about denying the other side victory than about any plank in their own agendas. Both campaigns have developed contempt for their opponent, justifying their belief that everything, then, is permitted.

In both campaigns, you can see the war-room mentality developing early. Attention spans shrink to a point. Gone is much awareness of the world outside the campaign. All focus is on the news blip of the moment — answering volley for volley. If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they throw a bomb, you throw two.

Brooks uses a bit of false equivalence to make his point—a blatantly dishonest Romney advertisement isn’t the same as a tough shot from the Obama team—but on the main, he’s right. The campaigns have been relentlessly negative, and with hundreds of millions going into this race from both sides, we can only expect it to get worse.

But it’s one thing to say that this year is more negative than usual; it’s something else to present the 2012 election as sui generis in its negativity. Opinions differ, of course, but so far, I don’t think we’ve seen anything as negative as the “Wolves” ad from George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, or the “Revolving Door” ad from George H.W. Bush’s 1988 bid for the White House. Indeed, as far as presidential elections are concerned, there’s nothing in the last thirty years that compares to LBJ’s “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater, where he attack the Arizona Republican as a trigger-happy nuclear warmonger.

Even in pre-television age, presidential campaigns were vicious. In the 1884 election, Grover Cleveland was hounded by Republican opponents for allegedly fathering an illegitimate child—“Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” was the preferred slogan. On the other side, a representative for Republican nominee James Blaine decried the Democratic Party as one of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The appeal was easily grasped by voters of the time—Democrats are traitors who brought you drunkenness and Catholicism.

The list goes on; Abraham Lincoln was mocked as “Ignoramus Abe,” Martin van Buren was accused of wasting taxpayer dollars and living in “regal splendor” while in the White House, and Andrew Jackson was portrayed as a bloodthirsty executioner. The mild criticisms of Ann Romney pale in comparison to the attacks lobbed at Rachel Jackson, the second wife of then-General Jackson—“Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” asked one anti-Jackson editorial.

Not even the Founding Fathers were immune to negative campaigning. In the 1800 campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both sides fought deep in the mud. Jeffersonians attacked Adams for his weight and appearance—“His Rotundity”—while Adams’ supporters accused Jefferson of being a Jacobin, and warned that if elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught.” I can only imagine how David Brooks would react if that accusation were in an Obama advertisement.

Negative campaigning has a long and storied history in American politics, for the simple reason that it works. It informs, it motivates, and it mobilizes. Indeed, I’m not sure that you can have mass democracy without negative campaigning. And while it may have gotten a little more fierce in the 21st century, the game is still largely the same.