In modern American politics, optimism, stability, and moderation usually win. Their opposing counterparts - negativity, recklessness, and extremism - almost always constitute a recipe for defeat.
This explains the almost unanimously favorable reactions to last week's Democratic convention. Even if the entire affair was a self-conscious attempt to project those winning qualities, it made the Kerry-Edwards ticket more appealing to the average American voter.
Incredibly, the Bush-Cheney campaign is ignoring not only this general rule, but also the specific evidence of its truth. That is, in spite of the success that the Democrats found with a positive message, the Republicans have decided to go negative.
According to one press report, the Republican convention in New York will "feature Mr. Kerry as an object of humor and calculated derision."
Besides being a questionable tactic in principle, and below the dignity of an incumbent wartime president, this approach will probably backfire. There is less tolerance for such attacks as the campaigns enter a phase when more Americans begin paying attention. Also, George W. Bush is more succeptible to being painted as an unhinged extremist on a host of issues, and he would be better served to present himself as a magnanimous, stable leader above the fray.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are benefiting from a course of events that come straight from a political science textbook. Primary candidates like Howard Dean and Wesley Clark rallied the party faithful by opening lines of attack against Bush and reclaiming issues like national security. The eventual nominee, Kerry, is more moderate and experienced, and he is channeling the energized Democratic base into a general election campaign that presents a broader agenda.
On the other hand, the Republicans are obsessed with their base to the point of distraction. Instead of giving middle-of-the-road Americans a reason to trust their leadership for another four years, the Bush-Cheney campaign merely serves red meat to its fervent followers with arguments couched in purely negative terms.
For instance, Bush responded to a line in Kerry's convention speech about "seeing complexities" by saying, "There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat," as if Kerry doesn't.
This extreme rhetoric is complemented by extreme policies, especially on economic and social issues. It's a strategy that just does not make sense for an election that will be decided in so-called swing states, like Arkansas.
Why are we a swing state? Because we like our politics in the middle. We elect politicians who don't rock the boat, and when they do (like Clinton in 1979-81), we cast them out. Our most liberal congressman is a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, and our most conservative congressman is a soft-spoken optometrist.
As the presidential campaign develops, Kerry and Edwards likely will introduce themselves to Arkansans and others using the themes they outlined at the convention. A war veteran who as a senator dealt with national security and diplomatic affairs, Kerry will paint himself as a reliable and steady commander-in-chief. Edwards will help in articulating a domestic policy that addresses job creation and health care. It's a positive, compelling case made even more so when contrasted with an arrogant, condescending, admit-no-failures approach that only can be enjoyed by a loyal cadre of supporters.
Of course, Bush and Cheney will never figure that out if they concentrate their visits on places like Fort Smith and Bentonville, where their base voters reside. And they are probably following the same playbook in other swing states, where the populations are as moderate as Arkansas's: preaching to the choir, and forcing spectators to sign loyalty oaths.
This is a strategy that practically admits defeat. It is an acknowledgement that the Republicans do not feel confident they can persuade undecided voters to join their camp, so they must hold their own numbers and demonize the opposition. Unable to practice addition, they have to depend on subtraction.
By ceding the high ground, they will lose the middle ground, where American presidential elections are won.
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