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Double Negative

The issue of negative campaigning and its proper bounds is now dominating the Democratic campaign. In recent weeks, the neck-and-neck race has degenerated into a miasma of trivial flaps--the source of that photo of Barack Obama in Somali garb, the "gaffes" of Samantha Power and Geraldine Ferraro, and so on--only tenuously related to the question of whether Obama or Hillary Clinton would be a better president. Each side, angling for any edge, gins up pseudo-controversies. In response, each feigns indignation, claiming the other is hitting below the belt.

These skirmishes have yielded no discernible advantage. But the bickering has, troublingly, validated a piece of conventional wisdom among a liberal commentariat that was already tilting heavily toward Obama: that Clinton is "ruthless," "vicious," even "Nixonian"--an unscrupulous appendage of her husband's "machine" (a word seldom used about the far better oiled Obama apparatus). As Obama's guru David Axelrod would have it, "They are literally trying to do anything to win this nomination." You hear it said everywhere, from blogs to high-toned op-ed pages. But this virulent meme is untrue, and--quite apart from the current contest--anyone who cares about liberalism and its future should be worried by its spread.

To begin with, the charge that Clinton is Nixonian is as scurrilous as the smears that Obama is a closet Muslim or that John McCain sired a bastard child. Her campaign, simply put, is not categorically different from any other hard-driving presidential bid, including Obama's own. It should be recalled that, back in the fall, when Obama trailed in the polls by double digits, friendly columnists positively begged him to go after the front-runner. In an October 30 debate, Obama charged that Clinton was "changing positions whenever it's politically convenient" and that "she has not been truthful" about her Social Security plans. The jibes grew so strident that Bill Richardson called a time-out in the middle of the debate, declaring, "It's pretty close to personal attacks that we don't need."

The point isn't to taunt, as if in the schoolyard, that Obama "started it"; the point is that no presidential aspirant enters the arena an innocent. Both candidates have flip-flopped, ducked questions, taken potshots, made dubious campaign promises, and spun the facts in disingenuous ways. They have done so for the same reason that fish swim and birds fly: It's in the nature and job description of politicians to do so. To plead that one or the other has done these things more, or more nefariously, is to launch a litany of tit-for-tat charges that would outrun the pages of this magazine.

Besides, objectively quantifying the cheap shots is impossible at this fraught moment, when any incident is read through the distorting lens of candidate preference. In a famous experiment from the 1950s, the public opinion analysts Hadley Cantril and Albert Hastorf had fans of Princeton and Dartmouth's football teams watch a film of a rough game between the two--in which, most egregiously, Princeton's star player was injured--and tally up the penalties. Dartmouth fans were more likely to judge the game as rough but fair, with penalties committed almost equally on both sides. Princeton fans said Dartmouth was responsible for more than two-thirds of the infractions. Team loyalty shaped or dictated perceptions. It is doing so today among Democrats and pundits.

Take a test: Did you think Clinton's "3 a.m." ad doubting Obama's readiness to handle crises was fear-mongering, rather than a valid, if slightly lurid, gambit? Did you read her "as far as I know" response to a question about Obama's religion as a shameful effort to stoke rumors rather than an unfortunate verbal tic amid a firm slap-down of those rumors? If so, you probably voted for Obama.

On the other hand, did you think Obama's health care mailers that echoed the old "Harry and Louise" ads were following the Republican playbook rather than "drawing distinctions" on the issues? Did you hear sexism when Obama spoke of Hillary's "claws com[ing] out," rather than an innocent remark? If so, you no doubt prefer Clinton.

This (very) partial list of mini-controversies may not persuade either aspirant's enthusiasts that this year's contest does not exactly pit Richard Nixon against Mahatma Gandhi, whomever you would cast in either role. But it should lead us all to think twice about feeling confident in our candidate's moral superiority--and especially about slinging terms like "Nixonian." Lines exist in politics that shouldn't be crossed, but, unlike Tricky Dick, Hillary Clinton hasn't tapped her rival's phones or broken into his psychiatrist's office. She hasn't stolen his debate briefing book or convened a mob of rioters to shut down a vote count. She hasn't used the machinery of impeachment for partisan gain. It's been just words.

None of Clinton's alleged offenses even departs from historical norms. Some detractors have cried foul at her hints--and they've been only hints--that she might woo some of Obama's pledged delegates. But, until recently, when primaries and caucuses became the norm, jockeying for delegates was standard practice, and, even in recent decades, it's hardly been unheard of. Late in the 1980 primaries, President Jimmy Carter had all but sewn up the nomination, but challenger Ted Kennedy stayed in the race, hoping that, if he won some key primaries--as he did--he could peel off Carter's supporters, who might not want to back a likely loser in the fall. Kennedy continued to pursue delegates even after the party rules committee barred first-ballot switching at the convention. In 1984, Gary Hart, despite losing in the primaries, planned a challenge to the legitimacy of roughly 500 of front-runner Walter Mondale's delegates, though he ultimately relented. If no Democrat has tried flipping delegates since then, it's only because the races haven't been close enough for the option to be worth considering.

Nor should Clinton's tactics be faulted for giving ammunition to the Republicans for the fall campaign. Harping on a rival's weaknesses is part and parcel of any campaign. Al Gore denounced Michael Dukakis's prison furlough program in 1988. Bill Bradley branded Gore a serial exaggerator in 2000. Whether these attacks serve to toughen or soften up the eventual nominee can't be proved either way. But historically Republicans have needed no help in finding ways to bash Democrats. And, while it's not the job of journalists and intellectuals to look after the Democrats' interests, a single standard should prevail. If questioning Obama's readiness for prime time is to be shunned lest it abet John McCain, Democrats should likewise avoid the potentially destructive notion that Clinton is an unusually dirty campaigner.

The most compelling reason to stop the demonization of Clinton is a philosophical one. For the claim that Clinton's attacks are somehow beyond the pale rests on and revives a distressing view of liberalism, politics, and power that, only recently, liberals seemed quite united in overcoming.

With its emphasis on fairness, openness, and playing by the rules, liberalism has always fostered an ambivalence about the exercise of power. A well-placed concern not to let ends justify means has often led to a misplaced sacrifice of ends to means. Fears of power's abuse have often constrained its use. In the 1950s, when Adlai Stevenson carried the Democrats' standard, party chairman Stephen Mitchell argued that liberals had to respond to the underhanded tactics of men like Nixon in kind. In the opinion journals, he was rebutted. If won on such terms, asked William Lee Miller in The Reporter, "then whose is the victory?" In contrast, Miller argued, "if we stick by what we believe, we may not win as often, but when we do we shall know what the victory means." That's how Stevenson ran--and lost. Since the 1980s, Democrats have explained away defeats by arguing that Republicans won only by playing dirty--a rationalization that is both inaccurate and self-deluding.

Yet, in contrast to this "doughface" liberalism, as Arthur Schlesinger famously termed it, another liberal tradition also exists. Under Franklin Roosevelt, wrote Schlesinger, "American liberalism ... had a positive and confident ring. It has stood for responsibility and for achievement." FDR and the New Deal's lieutenants respected fair play and fair procedures, but they put results first. They understood that politics is, inherently, a field of combat, not for the faint-hearted.

John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Kennedy--than whom no one was called "ruthless" more often--grasped the importance of confidently using power for progressive ends. They knew that vanquishing adversaries is essential to winning elections, implementing policies, and improving people's lives. No liberal should excuse the occasions when these men crossed inviolable lines, but none should forget either that the raft of legislation that Washington produced in the 1960s was not a product of chummy bipartisan committees and painless consensus-building.

One of the few bright spots of the Bush presidency was the rediscovery of this liberal tradition. The Florida recount fight, the post-September 11 patriotism politics, the rush to war in Iraq, and the swift-boating of John Kerry--all united liberals in disdain for the spinelessness of so many of their leaders. A hundred score op-eds demanded more Democratic mettle. The netroots gathered force not from any well-formed policy agenda but from a desire to fire up the base. E.J. Dionne Jr.'s 2004 book Stand Up, Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge was just the most pointedly titled of a shelf-load of tracts arguing for a liberalism that didn't regard an appetite for battle and a compassionate spirit as antithetical.

Recently, though, the Bush administration's implosion and the Democrats' capture of Congress eased the demand for a fighter. The launch of Obama's campaign, with its Stevensonian appeals to our better natures, dovetailed with a new--and complacent--optimism that the Democrats would regain the White House in 2008 all but inevitably. It's as if the angry populism from which Bush and the right have long drawn strength has vanished from the scene. And, while Obama has shown his own ability to fight fiercely, he has all along retained the posture of the reluctant warrior. Accordingly, he wins plaudits from an elite that clings to--or has reverted to--an ideal of bloodless political warfare. In contrast, when, last December, Clinton, after being pummeled for a month, announced, "Now the fun part starts"--heralding her plans to strike back--she was trashed for taking pleasure in the fisticuffs. The climate brooks no place for a happy warrior.

None of this is to celebrate the current tenor of the race. Good people on both sides have been needlessly caught in the crossfire. The demand for heads to roll whenever an aide misspeaks has reached a pitch that is dangerous, not for any singular ugliness but for its pettiness. And the press, to its discredit, lets these campaign-generated pseudo-events shape its coverage. But, as noted recently by James Carville--no stranger to political combat--campaigning is training for governing, preparing candidates to "get hit, stand strong, and, if necessary, hit back." Without a certain humility and hesitation about hitting back, neither Clinton nor Obama would be a good liberal. But, without the requisite readiness to do so, neither would be a very good politician either--or, more to the point, a very good president.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers.

By David Greenberg