The terms of the 2008 Presidential campaign were set twenty years ago—or, more accurately, perhaps, sometime around the fifth century B.C. In 1988, as Lee Atwater, President George H. W. Bush’s young campaign manager, was contemplating how to defeat Michael Dukakis, he consulted “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu, the well-known ancient Chinese political consultant. Among Sun Tzu’s pithier bullet points: “Know your enemy.” Atwater conducted a bit of opposition research, identified Dukakis’s vulnerabilities, and gleefully promised to “strip the bark off the little bastard.”
The two TV spots that ended Dukakis’s political career followed in due course. One, calculated, in Atwater’s words, to make Willie Horton Dukakis’s “running mate,” featured Horton, a black murderer who raped a white woman after escaping while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison—under a program that Dukakis supported. The other used footage from an event organized by the Dukakis campaign in an effort to show that he was tough on defense. Waving from a tank in an unfortunate helmet, Dukakis looked, as Atwater put it, like Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Those were the most memorable moments of the Bush-Dukakis campaign, and every Presidential candidate since has absorbed their lesson.
There is still a small chance that this year’s general-election season will be different. Hillary Clinton’s descent into Atwaterish bark-stripping has achieved its purpose, having helped to insure her victory in the Pennsylvania primary. But, according to one exit poll, sixty-eight per cent of voters thought that Clinton had attacked Barack Obama unfairly, and, in recent months, as her gibes have become increasingly nasty, her national approval ratings have dropped.
Nobody seems to know quite what to make of all this, but one thing does seem clear in the aberrant election of ’08: Barack Obama (still the likely Democratic nominee) and John McCain lifted themselves above the pack, despite enormous odds, largely because they pledged to be civil. At a campaign stop in Prescott, Arizona, on April 5th, McCain told the crowd, “We are Americans first and partisans second,” adding that the contest “should remain an argument among friends.”
Even the most conscientious candidates, of course, have moments of backsliding. They get tired and peevish. They worry that they might look weak. And they recall how effective sleazy attacks have been against them—such as the “push poll” in South Carolina in 2000 implying that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was a black child he had fathered. McCain was not able to recover after losing that primary. He has fared far better this year, but he hasn’t been willing to abandon such techniques himself.
Two weeks ago, his campaign sent out a fund-raising e-mail saying that “Barack Obama’s foreign policy plans have even won him praise from Hamas leaders,” and giving the impression that Obama could hardly wait to sit down with them for a genial exchange of views. McCain repeated the charge in a conversation with bloggers last week. (Never mind that Obama has repeatedly denounced Hamas and expressed unequivocal support for Israel.) There isn’t much to distinguish this kind of slander from the anonymous mass e-mails sent to Jewish voters before the early Democratic primaries, in California, New York, Florida, and elsewhere, claiming that Obama is a Muslim.
Until Obama’s fadeaway at the Philadelphia debate, he had deftly deflected his opponent’s sillier aspersions, but he has not managed to convince doubters in his party that he can “close the deal” in his match against Clinton, that he is at ease with the views of working-class whites, or that he would be able to outmaneuver Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, whom Hillary Clinton has threatened to “totally obliterate” if he should attack Israel or other Middle Eastern countries. Instead, he has become embroiled in the kind of “slash and burn” politics he condemns. Just before the Pennsylvania primary, the Obama campaign held a conference call with reporters in which Major General Walter Stewart, Jr., a former commander in the state National Guard, dwelling on Clinton’s false boast that she had come under sniper fire on a 1996 visit to Bosnia, said, “Imagine the lack of moral authority she has now to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” Relishing the opportunity, Clinton’s press office issued a memo calling it “the most outrageous attack of the campaign”—as, indeed, it was if the memo was referring solely to her opponent’s attacks on her, and not the reverse. It also gave Clinton a chance to zing Obama for hypocrisy, since, three days earlier, during an exchange about Clinton and Bosnia at the Philadelphia debate, he had warned sternly against getting “obsessed with gaffes.”
But what if McCain and Obama each took the other at his word? Rather than co-opting the media to spread dodgy claims in a grinding war of attrition, they would agree to conduct what McCain has described as “a respectful campaign”—and then actually do it. There would be a new set of rules. Tough exchanges on the foundering economy, the Iraq war, health care, climate change, and other issues that voters care about would be welcome. So would barbs and jokes from these two atypically witty candidates. But race-baiting, patriotism-impugning, and sexual innuendo would be off limits. Citizens would no longer be harassed by robocalls, push polling, or attack ads, such as the one sponsored by the North Carolina Republican Party—in apparent defiance of McCain and the national Party—that reprises the notorious Reverend Wright sermon, and describes Obama as “too extreme for North Carolina.”
It sounds implausible, but only four months ago so did the idea that McCain and Obama would be the front-runners. And even the most flagrant sinners can repent. In 1991, Lee Atwater apologized for what he had done to Dukakis and other Democratic “enemies.” Dying from a brain tumor, he published an extended mea culpa in Life. “Long before I was struck with cancer, I felt something stirring in American society,” he wrote. “It was a sense among the people of the country—Republicans and Democrats alike—that something was missing from their lives, something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican Party to take advantage of it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what ‘it’ was. My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.” With forgivable grandiosity, he called for the leaders of the nineties to “speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.” Atwater’s vision is unfulfilled, but it looks a lot like what these candidates claim they want for the country.