Don't make the Dukakis mistake

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By Rick Howell

We’re told by political analysts that American voters don’t like “negative campaigning.” The talking heads say that voters want “positive” ideas, uplifting proposals about what candidates would offer for the future.

It’s true that people respond to proposals that reflect their hopes. This was certainly the case during the Great Depression, when most voters saw that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal” was exactly what they needed. Today, however, we live in far more cynical times.

In the modern era, the Republican Party has survived and prospered on negative campaigning. The GOP has specialized in pointing out to voters not what they propose, but the “evils” of the Democratic Party and its ideas.

The Bush dynasty in presidential politics owes its very existence to this. Karl Rove is the individual most associated with an attack sort of politics, an approach that seeks to demonize your opponent before voters ever have a chance to assess policy proposals.

But before Rove did it for George W. Bush, Lee Atwater performed the task for the senior Bush in 1988. The Willie Horton ad is infamous; it destroyed a presidential campaign long before “swift boating” made it into the political lexicon.

So, negative campaigning works. If it didn’t, campaigns wouldn’t be so quick, in many cases, to use it. Voters may prefer to hear more “positive” things, but they respond one way or the other when a campaign “goes negative.” Very often, they believe the negative information they’re given about a candidate.

It’s this tactic that has apparently allowed John McCain to pull nearly even again in polls with Barack Obama. For weeks now, McCain has battered Obama about his overseas trip, his position on the war in Iraq, and his alleged “celebrity” status.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of negative attacks, some coming from McCain or from surrogates such as Sen. Lindsey Graham. Obama hasn’t shot back in the way some Democrats think he should. At least not yet.

He certainly should not make the mistake that Michael Dukakis made in 1988. “The Duke” thought that voters wanted to hear only positive things, and that he didn’t need to respond to the Willie Horton ad or anything else that Lee Atwater threw at him. It was a terrible error, one that Bill Clinton learned from in 1992.

The Clinton campaign had a 24-hour rule. Don’t let a 24-hour news cycle pass without responding directly to any negative criticism. Obama must adopt a similar approach, and adopt it immediately.

Perhaps it’s time to remind voters of McCain’s role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal. (If I remember correctly, he only narrowly escaped being indicted for that.) It’s certainly time for the mainstream press to do what “The Nation” magazine has done and put a spotlight on McCain’s chummy relationships with lobbyists. It appears rather hypocritical for a person who claims to want to clean up the influence of money in politics.

Certainly, McCain’s abandonment of his role as a “maverick” to be just another conservative should also be considered. The man who once correctly referred to Falwell and Robertson as “agents of intolerance” is now welcome at Liberty University.

In short, Barack Obama must hit back and hit back hard when he’s attacked. Don’t make the mistake that Dukakis made; learn from the Clinton model. Fight fire with fire. Fight negative campaigning with, well, negative campaigning. Sometimes, it has to be done.