May 20, 2008 — John McCain and Barack Obama are both principled, honorable men who have expressed a desire to refrain from negative campaigning during this year's presidential race. But modern politics exerts an "inevitable downward pull on candidates," and independent issue advocacy groups will certainly hurl low-road attacks at both candidates.
Despite those insights, Evan Thomas, editor-at-large for Newsweek, expressed cautious optimism that McCain and Obama will lead an uplifting campaign, as he explained during a May 15 talk at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Thomas detailed several factors that drag down American presidential campaigns. Modern campaigns all have "war rooms" — first made famous in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign — that monitor media outlets to react quickly to attacks or accusations. Even if good judgment and wise leadership incline a candidate to ignore a supposed controversy or attack, failing to respond within one news cycle often causes an issue to become more important, rather than less, said Thomas, a graduate of the U.Va. School of Law. John Kerry's slow response to the "Swift Boat" attacks of the 2004 campaign allowed the issue to linger and grow in importance, explained Thomas. Obama waited about three days to respond to recent incendiary and anti-American statements from his Chicago pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, with a similar but less-pronounced result.
The imperative to respond and "hit back hard" when attacked leads candidates into a tit-for-tat that is good for cable news shows and for highly paid political consultants, but off-putting to many Americans, Thomas said. As American media outlets have multiplied in recent years, they are fighting over smaller and smaller slices of audience, and have responded with more opinionated news that attracts people to tune in for views that reinforce and confirm their existing opinions. These smaller, more opinionated audiences have "coarsened and polarized" political discussion in America, Thomas said.
Politicians appealing to racism, fear and resentment are nothing new in American politics. Allegations that Thomas Jefferson sired a child with his slave, Sally Hemmings, first surfaced during his campaign for president against John Adams in 1800. Richard Nixon was "the godfather" of modern negative campaigning, said Thomas. He was "subtle and deft" with his appeals to racism, and quite skilled in using fear and resentments to motivate voters.
Since Nixon, there have been a steady stream of candidates playing on racism or fear in presidential campaigns, such as the infamous "Willie Horton" ads of the 1988 presidential campaign.
Whether the 2008 presidential campaign ends up being an uplifting one or a degrading one ultimately boils down to what Thomas called "the temptation of John McCain." Will McCain let his campaign staff or independent issue groups use "low road" attacks? During the 2000 Republican primary campaign in South Carolina, he was the victim of insinuations that he had fathered an illegitimate black baby, allegations that brought his wife to tears in front of him. This year, independent issue groups are primed to unleash similar attacks on Obama, and McCain has stated that he will not referee these groups.
There will be a distinct temptation for McCain to use the politics of fear and resentment, since, to win against Obama, he needs to peel off the same blue-collar, less-educated voters that Hillary Clinton has captured during the Democratic primary battles. Such temptations will become even more acute if the race gets close, Thomas suggested.
The one redeeming point of brutal American presidential campaigns is that they both reveal and build character in the candidates, he noted. At the end of the day, most voters ultimately vote based most on their judgment of a candidate's character, which ultimately is the most important quality in a leader.
Either candidate, upon winning this election, will call for reconciliation, Thomas said. The question is whether they will have helped or hindered that goal during the campaign.