As I mentioned the other day, reporters are both repulsed by and attracted to negative campaigning, and I think that probably goes for most of us as well. On one hand, we want to say, "Tut, tut, you shouldn't be doing that." On the other hand, not only can't we look away, but we desperately want our own favored candidate to go negative, so we can get the visceral satisfaction from watching our disfavored candidate get assaulted. It's analogous to the way we feel when watching a movie or reading a story: if the bad guy doesn't get killed in the end, we're left feeling unsatisfied.
But we also have a series of campaign conventions regarding what kind of behavior is acceptable that have little or nothing to justify them. One that has always mystified me is the idea that it's impolite to mention your opponent by name. Instead, you're supposed to say "my opponent" and speak of "the other party," as if to make clear whom you're talking about is somehow rude. This is supposed to be doubly true for the president, for whom it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the guy running to take his job, but unseemly to do so by saying the man's name. So today The New York Times dutifully rounds up a bunch of people expressing their displeasure that the word "Romney" has passed Barack Obama's lips in such a vulgar fashion:
But some veterans of past campaigns, particularly Republicans, questioned whether it would take some of the sheen off Mr. Obama's stature as president. Rather than appearing above the fray, Mr. Obama may look like just another officeseeker.
Sara Fagen, an adviser to President George W. Bush during his 2004 campaign against Senator John Kerry, and later the White House political director, said the campaign was conscious to avoid that. "He almost never mentioned him and certainly not this early," she said. "President Bush understood it diminished the office by going after his opponent directly."
That does not mean Mr. Bush's campaign went soft on Mr. Kerry. But the president largely left it to others to be so direct until summer. Vice President Dick Cheney opened the debate with a sharp speech criticizing Mr. Kerry in March 2004 at the same time the campaign began airing its first negative advertisements. When Mr. Bush criticized Mr. Kerry, he generally used phrases like "my opponent." Only in July did he start naming him regularly.
That was the case for previous presidents like Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1996.
Oh please. Here's the thing: this is a democracy. If the president wants a second term, he has to campaign for it. And the idea that the "stature" of his office is intact if he says "My opponent is wrong," but terribly damaged if he says, "Governor Romney is wrong" is just ridiculous. Nobody ever explains why one is supposed to be preferable to the other, and there is not a shred of evidence that voters react negatively to the president using his opponent's name. No one out there in the country thinks it's weird or beneath the office. The only people who ever say that are people from the other party pretending to disapprove. Voters may be stupid, but they aren't that stupid.
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