Can a Harvard man in love with numbers and a Harvard man in love with words go negative? Is America in for yet another negative election? Will this only further weaken America’s democracy and standing in the world?
Reviews of last week’s launch of Obama’s re-election campaign have expressed unease that this election will not be about hope, but about fear. Instead of a thoughtful discussion on lessons learned and pathways to a better future, it will be awash with vicious advertising and dire warnings about what will happen if the other side wins.
This prospect makes the nicest people nervous. Many who were taken with Obama in 2008 may see this as a surrender to mediocrity, a retrograde style of politics that’s paralyzing government and discouraging millions of Americans from voting.
NBC’s Chuck Todd and Ali Weinberg ask whether Obama’s campaign has “lost energy.”
“And while the GOP has fun pointing out that Obama 12 isn't inspiring the response that Obama 08 is, it's worse for the party out of power. The real reason? This is going to be a negative campaign. And negative campaigns involving incumbents are simply different beasts.
“It's a campaign in which both sides are painting a pessimistic view of life if the other side wins.”
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Obama can’t again inspire the hope and fear that he inspired as a stranger.
The chemistry is different after four years. However, the two words—"hope" and "fear"—always go together in important elections. Fear shadowed hope every day in 2008. Fear was there in 1960 when Kennedy was elected, and when Johnson won in 1964, and when Nixon returned in 1968.
Fear also encourages people to listen carefully, to take sides, and to get out and vote. And fear will likely make this another significant election.
So-called mandate elections on economic conditions hurt incumbents in bad times and help incumbents in good times. They don’t necessarily, however, reward competence or give the winners power to lead or resolve significant differences.
Somehow, the Republicans hold the default position on economic management. They’d like to be elected to manage—simply to put the economy back on track. They’d rather not talk about the big specifics behind their big tax cut promises and spending reforms.
Romney will likely pick a running mate who appears at least as dull as he is. This will not be done to give Romney more room to become more interesting, but instead to keep Americans away from the truly exciting gambles that Republicans are proposing to take with America’s public finances and social safety net.
In fact, the two broad economic policy directions offered by Obama and Romney are personal. Avoiding their personalities and the emotions behind their two campaigns would be both uninspiring and unenlightening.