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The Politics of Going Negative

By Tom Bevan

Political campaigns can be rough business -- especially presidential ones. Hard-hitting attack ads are coin of the realm in politics these days for one very simple reason: They work. So even though it's ridiculously early in the race for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama finds himself facing an interesting dilemma.

As anyone not living in a cave surely knows, Obama launched his campaign for president last weekend by deriding the "smallness of our politics" and promising to change the tone of political discourse in America. But with Hillary Clinton leading Obama by an average of nearly 20 points in the six major polls taken so far this year, will Obama be able to close the gap over the coming year without playing hardball? And how can he attack Clinton without looking small himself and undermining the core rationale for his candidacy?

I put that question to Obama's senior strategist, David Axelrod, before Obama's presidential announcement last Saturday in Springfield.

"If you have a difference over an issue that's something different than a gratuitous personal attack," Axelrod said. "But the real point is the premise that if you can inspire people and if you can give them something real to believe in, you can advance your campaign without tearing everybody else down. And that is our premise and we're going to try and see if it works. If it does work, then we truly have changed our politics for the better. If it doesn't, then it doesn't. But that's the only kind of campaign that he [Obama] really can run."

So, I quickly followed up, Obama won't go negative?

"I . . . I . . . I don't . . . I would not say that he won't draw contrasts where contrasts should be drawn," Axelrod hedged. "But if you're asking me, do we have a strategy to tear people down? We don't. And maybe that's incredibly naive, and maybe that is not feasible in modern politics. But we believe it is, and we believe it's important to run a campaign like that."

There's a great deal of nuance here, of course: One person's idea of an ad "drawing a contrast" on an issue could easily be characterized by another as an "attack." My interpretation of Axelrod's remarks is that Obama will play as rough as he needs to on the issues while recognizing the inherent risks and contradictions posed to his candidacy by getting too aggressive. In other words, he'll change the tone as much as he can without giving away the race.

The good news for Obama is that Hillary Clinton potentially faces the same dilemma, only in the reverse: If Obama does start to rise in the polls and seriously threaten her, how does Hillary attack such a likeable candidate without inciting a backlash and playing right into Obama's message about needing to change "the smallness of our politics''?

Strangely enough, then, we have the theoretical prospect of a mild Democratic presidential primary with the front-runners holding back on negative attacks -- the political equivalent of a Cold War between two superpowers bound by a doctrine of mutually assured destruction. For some reason I don't think it will work out that way.

John Edwards ran a fairly benign primary campaign in 2004. And while he proved that nice guys don't always finish last, he didn't win either. Interestingly, Edwards finds himself in a somewhat similar and potentially advantageous position this time around. The spark for Edwards (and Kerry) in 2004 came in Iowa when Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt turned caucus goers off by bludgeoning each other to death with negative television ads in the final days of the race. If Clinton and Obama do get into a heavyweight slugfest, Edwards might once again benefit from looking like a solid alternative.

With the primary process starting earlier than ever and the staggering amount of money that will propel the communication efforts of the top-tier candidates, "going negative" or even "drawing contrasts" on issues is going to be a tricky tightrope for each candidate to walk with voters. That's especially true for Obama, who has made changing the "smallness of our politics" the clarion call of his candidacy.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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