Will it be courtship or warfare in US polls? — David Brooks
MAY 5 — What sort of thing is a presidential campaign?
Maybe a campaign is like a courtship. A candidate’s job is to woo the electorate, to win the people’s affection with charm, familiarity and compassion.
Maybe a campaign is like a big version of American Idol. It is a contest over who is the most talented. In this mode, a candidate’s job is to endear himself to the people in the audience with likeability and then wow them with his gifts.
Maybe, on the other hand, hiring a President is like hiring a plumber. Voters are not really looking to fall in love with the guy; they just want someone who will fix the pipes. The candidate’s job is to list the three or four things he would do if elected and then to hammer home those deliverables again and again.
You could make a case that most campaigns are a little of all three, though the proportions vary from year to year.
So far, though, the 2012 presidential campaign is fitting into none of these categories.
This year, both organisations seem to visualise the campaign as a boxing match or a gang fight. Whichever side can hit the other side harder will somehow get awarded the champion’s belt.
So far this year, both President Barack Obama and Mr 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. All focus is on the news blip of the moment — answering volley for volley. Both sides are extraordinarily willing to flout respectability to show that they are tough enough to bare the knuckles.
In November, the Romney campaign ran a blatantly dishonest ad in which President Obama purportedly admits that if the election is fought on the economy, he will lose.
The quote was a distortion, but the effectiveness of the ad was in showing Republican professionals and primary voters that Mr Romney was going to play by gangland rules, that he was tough enough and dishonest enough to do so, too.
Last week, the Obama campaign ran a cheap-shot ad on the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of the ad was Mr Bill Clinton effectively talking about the decision to kill the terrorist. But, in the middle, the Obama people threw in a low-minded attack on Mr Romney.
The slam made Mr Clinton look small, it made Mr Obama look small, it turned a moment of genuine accomplishment into a political ploy, but it did follow the rules of gangland: At every second, attack; at every opportunity, drive a shiv between the ribs.
This martial-, gangland-style of campaigning apparently makes the people in the campaigns feel hardheaded, professional and Machiavellian. But it is not clear that it’s actually the best way to win an election.
The campaign-as-warfare metaphor may seem sensible to those inside the hothouse. But it is probably bad sociology and terrible psychology, given the general disgust with conventional politics.
If I were in the campaigns, I’d want to detach from the current rules of engagement and change the nature of the campaign.
If I were Mr Obama, I’d play to his personal popularity and run an American Idol campaign - likeability, balance, safety and talent.
If I were Mr Romney, saddled with his personal diffidence, I’d run a plumber campaign — you may not love me, but here’s four things I can do for you.
These would be very different campaigns than the ones we are seeing so far: More positive psychology, less negative psychology.
A few big messages about fundamental change, less obsession with the daily news cycle. More attention devoted to those turned off by politics, less to the hard-core denizens who are obsessed by it. — Today
* David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider