Rebutting the main argument in Doug Schoen and Patrick Caddell’s latest travesty of an op-ed column (“The Hillary Moment,” in Monday’s Wall Street Journal) would be a pretty egregious example of shooting fish in a barrel. Their idea that Barack Obama should abruptly shut down his re-election campaign so that Democrats can run the Secretary of State is both ludicrous and pointless, aside from the fact that neither of these two Fox Democrats comes to the topic in good faith.
On the other hand, Schoen and Caddell build their dumb and disingenuous argument on a premise that is accepted in better company than their own: that if Obama wins with a “negative campaign” focusing on the extremism of the Republican Party, he will make his second term a shambles, marked only by increased partisanship as insulted conservatives refuse to cooperate with his agenda. But this premise is as equally flawed as the other arguments the duo put forward. Win or lose, the kind of Obama campaign that Schoen and Caddell bemoan may, in fact, be the only way to end the polarization and gridlock and make governing in Washington possible again.
To begin, it’s far from clear why conservatives would be offended by the claim that they represent a very different governing philosophy than the one put forward by President Obama. Indeed, it’s exactly what they say. Aside from their fatuous claims that the cautious centrist Obama represents something new and dangerously leftist in the Democratic Party, the prevailing conservative belief is that their own party had “abandoned conservative principles” up until 2009, and made big gains in 2010 precisely because a previously hidden majority of Americans were mobilized to vote for a Tea Party-influenced GOP that was finally loud, proud, and consistent about its ideology.
If conservatives are right about the likely outcome of an election representing a “choice, not an echo” (to adopt the title of Phyllis Schlafly’s famous book from the Goldwater campaign, which became an abiding slogan of the conservative movement), nothing should please them more than a “negative” Obama campaign that calls attention to their party’s hard-earned ideological rigor.
Besides, we already have an excellent example of a president who ran on a message of bipartisanship—Obama in 2008—and we all saw how well that worked out for him. There’s no reason on earth to believe an Obama campaign based on constant appeals to bipartisanship, if successful, would work any better to produce actual bipartisanship than the constant appeals to bipartisanship the president made during his first electoral campaign.
In fact, it’s reasonably clear in retrospect that one significant source of the current partisan gridlock in Washington is that Obama’s 2008 campaign was insufficiently negative to yield the kind of mandate to govern that Republicans (and for that matter, dissident Democrats) could not ignore. Yes, Obama campaigned on a platform that included precisely the kind of major policy initiatives he has tried to implement in office, most notably universal health coverage and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. But in the post-election period, Republicans and many “neutral” pundits insisted on dismissing everything Obama had said during the campaign other than his promise to overcome partisan gridlock, interpreted as meeting the GOP at least half-way on every subject regardless of how rapidly they moved to the right. Had Obama spent much of 2008 attacking conservative ideology as inherently misguided and out of line with the views and values of the country, his resounding victory would have discredited the popular conservative idea that a “center-right nation” had decided Obama might be a better vehicle for reining in big government than the feckless big-spender Bush or the RINO McCain.
That’s why, if a second Obama term is to amount to much of anything, it’s important that he make the policy choices facing the country as clear as is humanly possible. And yes, that means comparative—which is by necessity partially negative—campaigning, rather than some placid demand that voters judge his record in an up-or-down vote that does not take into account the kind of politicians and policies they would thereby elevate to power. And even if he is doomed to lose, he owes it to the country to keep constant pressure on the GOP to make its positive policy agenda as explicit as possible. Under such pressure, it’s possible a nominee like Mitt Romney would disappoint the Republican Tea Party base by foreswearing highly destructive courses of action and embracing positions that involve something more than a demand that Democrats unconditionally surrender.
Moreover, Obama has a moral obligation to remind voters that the presidential election is not, as a simple matter of fact, a referendum, but a decision for and against two candidates, two parties, two philosophies, two agendas, two prospective Supreme Courts, two prospective foreign policies, two views of economic inequality, two attitudes towards the very wealthy and the very poor, and two concepts of the very purpose of government. Americans unhappy with life in the United States who vote against Obama next November will not simply be registering their unhappiness with the status quo, but will be voting for policies ranging from the abandonment of reproductive rights and progressive taxation to the proposition that anyone rich enough to be regarded as a “job creator” should be exempt from accountability to the public for much of anything.
Of course, thanks to the obstructive power of minority parties in Washington, a comparative election will not necessarily empower the winners of either the presidential or the congressional elections to govern effectively. But it’s far more likely to produce accountability for winners and losers alike, hastening the day when the country is not lurching from one status quo referendum to another with each cycle’s losers choosing to deny the winner any sort of mandate. So let’s hear it for “negative campaigning,” if it offers Americans an opportunity to give Washington some clear direction.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.