David Greenberg: The return of doughface liberalism





The issue of negative campaigning and its proper bounds is now dominating the Democratic campaign. In recent weeks, the neck-and-neck race has degenerated into a miasma of trivial flaps--the source of that photo of Barack Obama in Somali garb, the "gaffes" of Samantha Power and Geraldine Ferraro, and so on--only tenuously related to the question of whether Obama or Hillary Clinton would be a better president. Each side, angling for any edge, gins up pseudo-controversies. In response, each feigns indignation, claiming the other is hitting below the belt.

These skirmishes have yielded no discernible advantage. But the bickering has, troublingly, validated a piece of conventional wisdom among a liberal commentariat that was already tilting heavily toward Obama: that Clinton is "ruthless," "vicious," even "Nixonian"--an unscrupulous appendage of her husband's "machine" (a word seldom used about the far better oiled Obama apparatus). As Obama's guru David Axelrod would have it, "They are literally trying to do anything to win this nomination." You hear it said everywhere, from blogs to high-toned op-ed pages. But this virulent meme is untrue, and--quite apart from the current contest--anyone who cares about liberalism and its future should be worried by its spread.

To begin with, the charge that Clinton is Nixonian is as scurrilous as the smears that Obama is a closet Muslim or that John McCain sired a bastard child. Her campaign, simply put, is not categorically different from any other hard-driving presidential bid, including Obama's own. It should be recalled that, back in the fall, when Obama trailed in the polls by double digits, friendly columnists positively begged him to go after the front-runner. In an October 30 debate, Obama charged that Clinton was "changing positions whenever it's politically convenient" and that "she has not been truthful" about her Social Security plans. The jibes grew so strident that Bill Richardson called a time-out in the middle of the debate, declaring, "It's pretty close to personal attacks that we don't need."

The point isn't to taunt, as if in the schoolyard, that Obama "started it"; the point is that no presidential aspirant enters the arena an innocent. Both candidates have flip-flopped, ducked questions, taken potshots, made dubious campaign promises, and spun the facts in disingenuous ways. They have done so for the same reason that fish swim and birds fly: It's in the nature and job description of politicians to do so. To plead that one or the other has done these things more, or more nefariously, is to launch a litany of tit-for-tat charges that would outrun the pages of this magazine.

Besides, objectively quantifying the cheap shots is impossible at this fraught moment, when any incident is read through the distorting lens of candidate preference. In a famous experiment from the 1950s, the public opinion analysts Hadley Cantril and Albert Hastorf had fans of Princeton and Dartmouth's football teams watch a film of a rough game between the two--in which, most egregiously, Princeton's star player was injured--and tally up the penalties. Dartmouth fans were more likely to judge the game as rough but fair, with penalties committed almost equally on both sides. Princeton fans said Dartmouth was responsible for more than two-thirds of the infractions. Team loyalty shaped or dictated perceptions. It is doing so today among Democrats and pundits....

Nor should Clinton's tactics be faulted for giving ammunition to the Republicans for the fall campaign. Harping on a rival's weaknesses is part and parcel of any campaign. Al Gore denounced Michael Dukakis's prison furlough program in 1988. Bill Bradley branded Gore a serial exaggerator in 2000. Whether these attacks serve to toughen or soften up the eventual nominee can't be proved either way. But historically Republicans have needed no help in finding ways to bash Democrats. And, while it's not the job of journalists and intellectuals to look after the Democrats' interests, a single standard should prevail. If questioning Obama's readiness for prime time is to be shunned lest it abet John McCain, Democrats should likewise avoid the potentially destructive notion that Clinton is an unusually dirty campaigner....

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