One of the things I think it's really important to understand about American politics is a handy rule; people don't vote for things, they vote against things. Like most handy rules, it's not 100% true. The candidate who's all criticism and no alternative proposals isn't going to get very far. But it's true enough. It might be more accurate to say that people are more motivated to vote against things than for things. It's why negative campaigning and attack ads work.
But there are more ways to motivate people to vote against something than smears and mudslinging. Obviously, if your opponent is just plain awful, you only need to point out what their positions actually are. It's this approach that Harry Reid is using against Sharron Angle in Nevada. "Negative" doesn't necessarily mean dishonest. Sometimes, all you have to do is point out that the person who's falling down drunk isn't the best person to choose as designated driver.
And sometimes, the negative campaigning goes under the radar. I believe this is the case with one of the stories of the week. On Sunday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pointed out that bad things could happen to the House of Representatives in November. "I think there's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control," Gibbs said on Meet The Press. "There's no doubt about that." When a Republican says they'll take the House, it gets press, but not a lot of attention out here in the real world. They're supposed to say that, for the same reason that a football player assures everyone that they're going to win the big game. But when a player on the other teams says it, then that makes some ripples.
[John Dickerson, Slate:]
Did Gibbs let slip one of those truths that everyone in Washington knows but that as the president's spokesman is not supposed to admit? No. He merely articulated the White House political strategy.
In May, the president warned that if Republicans took over Congress, they would repeal the just-passed health care law. He added that they'd drive the country's economy into the ditch again, as they did last time they were in control. "The American people will have a choice about whether or not we're going to keep rebuilding [an] America that is stronger and more prosperous," Obama said at a Democratic fundraiser in New York, "or going back to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place." He has repeated those remarks since then, including at two events last week in Missouri and Nevada.
In a campaign where neither party benefits much from positive messages and where the Democratic base is dispirited and less enthusiastic than its counterparts, fear is the best motivator. Since Sarah Palin isn't running for anything this time around, the best specter the president has to conjure is Republicans in control of Congress...
John Boehner becomes speaker of the House and, for example, Joe Barton becomes the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Not the most appetizing prospect. You don't even have to say anything bad about these people. The base knows House Republicans pretty well; well enough to get spooked by the idea of having them running things. And there's some crossover to this appeal; nationally, Republicans are still less trusted on the economy than Democrats. Having people pause and think about what it would really mean to have the GOP running the House can only benefit Democrats. So "Republicans could win" becomes a winning message for Democrats.
This strategy also involves the White House throwing themselves under the bus. There isn't much danger for Obama there, because he's not up for reelection until two years from now. And there isn't any doubt that his polling sucks, so allowing House dems to distance themselves from -- or even attack -- the White House isn't the worst idea anyone's ever had. For her part, Speaker Pelosi took up the message to rally the troops (emphasis mine):
Here is what will happen in November. Democrats will keep control of the House. Period.
While some Washington pundits are claiming that Republicans have the momentum, I remain more confident in our chances for victory as long as we have our secret weapon -- you.
Democrats can either enroll their entire base in a motivational seminar and hope they all show up or they can motivate them to vote against Republicans. And there's also a post-election messaging war to be won here. It's not unreasonable to believe that Pelosi's good cop argument will turn out to be the winning argument. There are good reasons to believe it's unlikely that the GOP takes the House of Representatives in November. Premature Republican triumphalism may hurt that party in the end, dispiriting the teabagging base who've been promised over and over that their efforts will not be in vain. Among the GOP base, the mood isn't one of optimism, but of certainty. A continuing Democratic majority would demoralize them. Of course, there's the predictable danger that this base will become even more insane because of it, but that's a prospect I think everyone's willing to live with. Personally, I don't think these people are in it for the long haul. Once they fail to "take their country back," I think there's going to be some attrition through desertion. Hysterical, eye-gouging, hair-tearing outrage is exhausting. Unless you have a talent for it, you can only keep it up for so long.
There's a lot of that kind of talent out there in the Republican base, but it's by no means universal.
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