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August 20, 2008

McCain in a prisoner's dilemma

David Brooks argued yesterday that "[John] McCain and his advisers have been compelled to adjust to the hostile environment around them. They have been compelled, at least in their telling, to abandon the campaign they had hoped to run. ... The man who lampooned the Message of the Week is now relentlessly on message .... The man who hopes to inspire a new generation of Americans now attacks Obama daily."

This column provoked derisive responses from some liberal readers. Tom Fornholtz summarizes Brooks thus: "The American people have forced John McCain to run a dishonorable campaign." It's as if there were two possible culprits to blame for the strong negativity of the McCain campaign--the candidate or the audience--and Brooks was blaming the latter.

Clearly, the candidate bears some responsibility. But blame can also fall on the situation--the logic of the game. A presidential campaign is strictly zero-sum: a vote against Obama is a vote for McCain. Only one of the candidates can win the White House. By attacking the other person, you can improve your relative standing; witness the way that negative opinions about Obama have risen and his margin has fallen--for example, according to the LA Times--as McCain has attacked him. "All the negative attacks from the McCain campaign seem to have been paying off," said [LA] Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

Now if you think that tearing down your opponent is morally bad, and the only reason you're doing it is to enhance your own personal prospects, then you shouldn't do it. But that's not McCain's situation. He no doubt believes that: (a) the attacks are at least partly justified and therefore actually informative, (b) there are principled reasons why he (McCain) should win the presidency; (c) thousands or even millions of people are resting their hopes on him; (d) negative campaigning works; and (e) negative campaigning is the norm and is likely to come from the Democratic side as well, sooner or later.

This is a classic situation in which two players are likely to harm the overall atmosphere in the pursuit of their own interests. One will attack the other, if only as a preemptive strike; and then his opponent will attack back. One way to mitigate the situation is to build up mutual trust through private and candid conversations. But that's almost impossible for two competitors in the glare of national publicity. Another way is to put principle above self-interest, but that is always rare, and is especially unlikely when some principles seem to favor negative campaigning.

The solution lies not in blaming either the candidate or the public, but in structural reforms. The idea that McCain floated for numerous joint appearances--while obviously in his own self-interest--might also have mitigated the impact of negative campaigning in the race. Another idea is the kind of election coverage pioneered by public journalists in the 1990s: newspapers can stop reporting on campaign tactics and ads and start explaining policy differences. Finally, if the Obama "ground game" (thousands of paid local organizers) wins the election for him, it will show that increasing turnout through grassroots action is more effective than using ads to tear down one's opponents. That may change the next election for the better.

August 20, 2008 8:29 AM | category: none


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