It is accepted wisdom in Democratic circles and the mainstream media that Democrats lose presidential races because they aren’t “tough enough.” John Kerry didn’t lose because he was an out-of-touch, flip-flopping, snob; he lost because he didn’t debunk the Swift Boat Vets. Michael Dukakis didn’t lose because he was a robotic ultra-liberal; he lost because of those nasty Willie Horton ads. And so it goes. Democrats and the media have built a pantheon of diabolical Republican strategists from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove who are responsible for their failures. It’s never the candidates the Democrats have selected or the policies they advocate. And now, they are at it again.
Democrats fret that Barack Obama is not being tough enough and not attacking John McCain hard enough. That’s a less unnerving explanation for the closeness of the race (and the sense that momentum has shifted) than more prosaic explanations (e.g. the Ego Trip was a horrid miscalculation, Obama has blown it on energy policy, the Obama-mania has become an embarrassment, experience is turning out to be an issue after all). But I’m sure the McCain camp would be thrilled if the Obama camp accepted this excuse and the accompanying advice (Be meaner!).
Why? Well, attributing their difficulties to those nasty Republicans prevents self-evaluation and self-reflection by the Obama team: Are the candidate’s policies credible? Is the candidate not good without a script? Have they lost their message? In short, it distracts them from fixing real problems.
But even more critically here, encouraging Obama to go whole-hog negative will, if the advice is accepted, essentially kill off whatever is left of the New Politics, holier-than-thou Obama brand. It already was weakened with the multiple flip-flops and reneging on public financing. But a barrage of negative ads and anti-McCain attacks from The One’s own lips will be final straw.
Now the fact that Obama is getting his share of conflicting, bad advice (which the McCain camp has heretofore had a monopoly on) is some indication that all is not well in Obama-land. And if McCain is really lucky, Obama will listen to the voices urging him to be meaner. Better that, than fixing what really ails a campaign knocked off course by the first serious bout of head-to-head combat.