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GOP, Rothenberg Should See Futility of Relying on Attacks

by David Winston

In his critique of my Dec. 2 column, my Roll Call colleague, Stuart Rothenberg, in essence, defended the Republican political status quo — an attack-based campaign doctrine that has failed both the party and its candidates, much to the delight of Democrats. If I were on the other side hoping for a permanent political majority, I’d encourage Republican operatives to keep doing what they’ve been doing for years, too. Clearly, the American people have moved on and want more from political leaders than negative campaigns and pork-barrel politics. To suggest, as he did, that “when your party’s reputation is in the toilet, trying to drive up your opponents’ negatives is one of the few things you can do,” is “simply wrong.”

The truth is, voters don’t want to hear why the other guy is bad. They want to know why you are a better choice. People want hear how candidates will govern, how they will solve problems and what they really stand for.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) put it this way: “Wal-Mart doesn’t get ahead by attacking Sears but by offering better value.” In the past two elections, Republicans failed to win over voters because they failed to tell them how they would address their concerns.

The GOP has spent the past 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to drive up Democrats’ negatives. Sometimes they succeeded, but rather than solidifying the GOP’s majority coalition, over time, this self-defeating strategy made it permanently vulnerable. Republicans found themselves with razor-thin victories, no mandate to govern and growing unfavorable ratings.

Rothenberg also argued that Congressional Republicans were forced to employ a negative attack strategy because sitting presidents and presidential nominees define a party, not Congressional candidates. He’s half right.

Yes, President George W. Bush’s job approval was a significant drag on the ticket. But it is possible for a ruling party to overcome an unpopular incumbent. Just ask France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who managed to win election despite the huge unpopularity of fellow party member and former President Jacques Chirac.

He did it by making a clean break with Chirac’s policies and offering up a positive agenda of his own. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, failed to convince voters that he had a viable plan to deal with an increasingly troubled economy. Instead, he predictably fell back on a politics-as-usual attack strategy to define Obama rather than define himself and his vision to voters.

Instead of focusing on the merits of his own tax plan or trying to make his health care plan comprehensible, his campaign relied on unserious, negative ads like the “sex ed ad” questioning Obama’s character. It didn’t work.

As Daniel Finkelstein observed in the London Times about the McCain campaign’s attack spots, “They are ignoring a golden rule of politics. Your attack ads also shape views of you. Whether or not the [the Britney Spears/Paris Hilton ad] makes Mr. Obama look smaller, it certainly makes John McCain look smaller.”

In fact, it is possible to overcome a negative national political environment and do it without resorting to harsh personal attacks.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) is a good example. Rothenberg attributes his victory to negative attacks on his Democratic opponent. I did the polling for this race and saw the dynamics in play up close.

Souder spent 2007 and the first half of 2008 building his positives with voters. During the campaign, he spent half his time reinforcing those positives and the other half defining a choice by drawing a fair and effective contrast with his opponent’s qualifications and issue positions.

This was not, however, a traditional “negative” attack campaign. First, it was a balanced approach of positive and contrast tactics. Second, Souder’s campaign reflected the distinction between a contrast ad that defines a substantive choice between two candidates based on issues or résumés as opposed to over-the-top negative spots questioning a candidate’s integrity and morals in a personal way.

In recent losing elections, we’ve seen more of the latter, and it has negatively impacted the Republican brand. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was ill-served when his campaign ran a spot that implied now-Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), as state treasurer, had invested state funds in organizations with alleged ties to terrorists. It was ridiculous, and it backfired.

The same could be said of the famous “blond bimbo” ad against Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, aired by the Republican National Committee and without now-Sen. Bob Corker’s knowledge. Internal polling showed the ad cost Corker his lead and made the race much more competitive than it should have been.

The attack on now-Sen. Jim Webb (D) in the Virginia Senate race as a purveyor of pornography and the “godless” ad used in Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s (R-N.C.) losing reelection battle are still more egregious examples of the kind of attack media Republicans must reject.

For too many operatives, when it comes to campaign strategy, defining the opponent isn’t one option; it’s the only option. But there is another way. We’ve seen a model that worked for Republicans — the energy issue — even in the very negative political environment of the past year.

By coalescing behind a strong idea, Republicans were able to win this issue, not through an attack strategy designed to define Democrats but by positively arguing their case to the American people for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. It was a good first step on the road back from the wilderness that we can learn from.

Republicans won’t regain a majority coalition until they reject attack-based campaigns and prove Republicans are ready to govern by first winning issues.