Negativity and Dysfunctionality: The Discussion of How to Discuss Democratic Presidential Candidates

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Only positive discussion -- or also some negative?

Only positive discussion — or also some negative?

  1. God Grant Us Democrats Unity — But Not Yet!

I’m going to let those of you who aren’t Democrats in on some intra-party debates we’re having right now.  I am, of course, supposed to hide them.  I just don’t see the point.  I don’t think that I’m saying anything that the Republicans who will be running this year’s general election campaigns don’t know; and, it follows, I don’t think that I’m saying anything that the Republican rank and file won’t find out.  (Republicans will come up with some lines of attack — Gore’s “inventing the Internet,” Kerry’s swift-boating, Obama’s pastor and his mentor — that I probably can’t even imagine right now.  What I’m discussing here is just the stuff that I can see from an interested relative outsider’s perch.

A month from now, the tallies from the Iowa caucuses will be in.  I won’t address the Republican side here except to say that Ted Cruz will likely win Iowa and everyone — Republican and otherwise — will come to regret it deeply.  (He’s worse than Trump.  Trump is winging it; Cruz is planning it.  Trump is, believe it or not, at some level rational.  Cruz is a true believer in himself and his cause.  And the more people know him, the more they’ll hate him.)    My focus is with my party — and on the discussions going on right now about what is acceptable to discuss.

On the Democratic side, a month from now, Hillary will either have won big or won small, or Bernie will  have won small or won big.  If Hillary pulls away in the early contests, it will be all over but the backbiting and sniping at Sanders and his followers, which among other things will not be that interesting.  The point is that the two possible outcomes are really that Hillary sews things up early (and Sanders either limps along until California or doesn’t) or Sanders does well early and we’re left with a prolonged struggle that has the potential to remind us of 2008.  Hillary dropping out or scaling back early, barring some medical (and probably not political) disaster simply is not in the cards.

That means that there is much to discuss right now — and Hillary’s supporters are intent on that discussion not taking place.  Doing so, we’re told, would be negative campaigning — and now is the time for unity.

This is balderdash.  Now is not the time for unity, but for disunity.  That’s what a primary is!  Hillary is not headed for a coronation; she’s headed for the most miserable campaign that any candidate has probably ever endured, if she is nominated, as almost 25 years of pent-up Republican frustration bursts out of its bottle.

Yes, we’re going to hear about Vince Foster and Webb Hubbell again — most of you won’t much, because you’re educated readers, but other voters will — and Whitewater and cattle futures and that most potent of all time bombs, the pornographic Starr Report, rebooted for a new generation of viewers.  And the choices for Democrats are dismissiveness (it’s all old news, people love Bill Clinton!) and preparation.

The problem with preparation, for Hillary’s supporters, are that it could lead to the conclusion that nominating Hillary is not the best idea.  That is, of course, intolerable.  Hillary’s being the best choice for President, the sure bet for President unless dissidents in the Democratic party somehow screw things up, is not a conclusion on the part of her supporters — IT IS A GODDAMNED AXIOM!  Every new piece of evidence must be bent so that it fits with that premise.

And if you start with that premise, then the message to Sanders supporters is clear: Shut Up.  Or rather, “fight along ineffectually as much as you must, but don’t throw any really hard punches, because Hillary is inevitable under all circumstances — and your criticisms could defeat her.”

Here’s something that got tossed at me on Facebook, and which prompted this post:

Going negative lowers the voting turn out. We not only have to think about the President, but Congress and State houses. Going negative hurts Democrats and helps Republicans. A lot of the negative stuff the Bernie people put up I believe is being created by Republicans. None of it says who created it. Going negative only helps Republicans. Plus positive messages helps all Democrats. I will not pass on a negative piece about Hilary or Bernie. I will pass on a positive one which I did tonight to a Friend that is thinking about voting Democrat for the first time.. It is the positive messages that win votes. Plus Bernie never goes negative. Follow Bernie’s lead. Do not help out Republicans.

Yeah, Bernie never goes negative — but Hillary did in 2008 (her campaign subtly race-baited Obama as much as it could get away with — if not more) and Bill Clinton certainly did it in 1992.  (Ask Jerry Brown.)  So spare me the sobbing.  The real question is: what constitutes going negative?

Here’s what I see as the classic case of going negative: finding some information that the opponent would not likely find and slamming your target with it.  The best example of this I know of is when Al Gore — then considered a conservative centrist brainiac, sort of the Democratic version of Paul Ryan — dug up the salacious and misleading Willie Horton story and slammed Michael Dukakis with it. (These were times when a Democrat could get away with that sort of thing.)  Chances are the the Republicans would not have found it otherwise, in those pre-Internet days — and it more than anything else led the first George Bush to victory.  I agree with this much — if a secret really is buried, obscure, and an unfair attack to begin with, you don’t want to be responsible for using it to destroy your party’s nominee.

But nothing that I have to say about Hillary Clinton is a secret.  It’s all material that the Republicans already know about.  And — as it’s certainly coming up anyway — there’s no reason not to discuss it while the nomination remains in doubt.  Unless, that is, you don’t want the nomination to be in doubt — in which event you are my opponent as an activist in the upcoming race.  So that led to this, which I didn’t public on Facebook because it’s way too long.

2. My Reply to Hillary’s Supporters Who Want to Avoid Negativity

I am not surprised that Hillary’s advocates to not want to talk about character and that Bernie’s do.  But who, seriously, do you think that you’re fooling with that approach?

Let’s us Democrats agree that we all want a Democrat to win in November.  Then why would we FAIL to discuss that Hillary has what has since become known as a “Brian Williams problem” — as evident with her 2008 comments on Tuzla (where she claimed falsely that she and Chelsea were met by sniper fire.)  Why wouldn’t we discuss what is even worse when it comes to evaluating her probable performance as President — her dogged resistance to admitting the truth for far too long despite the existence of definitive videos?

You think that the Republicans don’t know about it?  They do — that weapon is locked and loaded.  You think that the public won’t be captivated by it?  Ask Brian Williams about that.

It is a serious potential obstacle to our electing a Democrat in 2016 — and you think that openly discussing, or even acknowledging the existence of, this non-secret should be squelched because it would be “negative campaigning”?  Who do you think you’re fooling beside yourself?

Another minor example in the category of “pandering” — GOP videos already use video of Hillary clumsily adopting different accents when speaking in the North versus in the South.  Bill Clinton didn’t do that (much, although he was a policy wonk or a populist as situations demanded.  Carter couldn’t do it at all; he only had one side to his public persona and he made that an advantage in those post-Watergate days.  Obama only switched codes when it came to the lovely cadences of the civil rights preachers, to which he was entitled.  Sanders alternates between being a hectoring prophet and a warm folksy grandpa, but he couldn’t hide his accent even in a dark cellar.

Hillary’s being genre-fluid doesn’t bother you, if you’re a party regular — it’s “just politics” — although you’d be beating the drum and mocking it if the Republican nominee like to do so.  But there are two big problems with it.  First, it may crystallize the perception among voters that Hillary tries to be “all things to all people” (“all” would obviously be an exaggeration), which reflects an actual serious weakness on her part.  Second, she’s really bad at it!  She’s can’t do these accents naturally or subtly or well, despite all those year’s in Arkansas.  She’s as unslick as her husband was slick.  She preps well — as George W. Bush did in 2000 — but when not tied down she rolls all around the deck.  (“I told Wall Street to cut it out!” was surely not in her briefing book.)

These things matter.  Dukakis lost largely because he was cold, Gore because he was wooden, Kerry because he was stiff.  “Relatability” matters.  Relatability has been what has made or broken Democratic Presidential candidates for more than half a century.

You don’t want to discuss Hillary’s lack of ease at being herself in many (not all) situations, especially where she can’t be prepped or in her “happy place” dealing with women and children (where she absolutely does excel)?  But isn’t that what we NEED to talk about?  Is doing so “negative” — or is it necessaryYou may not see Hillary’s flaws as a candidate, but she already HAS your vote.  Are you truly dismissive of the prospect that others who aren’t party regulars and don’t swoon for and forgive everything Clinton DO see these problems and MAY be put off by them?

Seriously — control of the Supreme Court is on the line and YOU don’t want to discuss what may derail a Democrat because YOU’VE decided that it doesn’t matter?  You don’t want to know how voters feel about these traits?

Sorry, but it seems to me that you are starting from the premise that Hillary is the best candidate and reasoning backwards from there.  You are not open to acknowledging the flaws, or perhaps only potential flaws, that she has.

This is not being serious about winning.  This is playing into the hands of the Republicans’ next generation of Lee Atwaters and Karl Roves.  You don’t want to consider the near-certainty that the Republicans are going to – cravenly and unfairly – post the Starr Report all over the place if Hillary is the nominee.  OF COURSE THEY WILL!  IT TARNISHES HER!  They don’t care that it’s unfair!  They care that it’s salacious!  Hell, it’s 2016 — given current technology you’re probably going to see it computer animated, sold for a dime, and featured on Fox News!

This upsets you because something like the Starr report shouldn’t matter when it comes to Hillary. Well, I may agree that it shouldn’t matter, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t!  Is it “negative campaigning” to recognize that possibility?  Or is it simply legitimate, admirable, and appropriate frankness and honesty?  I’m not going to argue that Democrats shouldn’t nominate Hillary because Republicans will whip out the Starr Report with bells on; I’m arguing that it is a demerit that factors into the equation, much like Sanders having had a child out of wedlock (which shouldn’t matter either.  And see — I just brought it up!)

In going after Sanders, you’re welcome to suggest that the country won’t want to elect a socialist Jew in his mid-70s.  As a Sanders supporter, I have to be ready for that argument because the Republicans will certainly try to use all three of those characteristics against him if he is the nominee. And I have my arguments as to why he can win despite all of them.  Go ahead, raise them.  I won’t accuse you of being negative unless you argue that any of those three are bad.

We can and we should have this sort of discussion openly, without deluding ourselves that if we just don’t talk about something the problem will not arise. We can’t afford to be like a dysfunctional family that can’t talk about mommy and daddy’s problems.  (That, I think, is the real harm that Bill Clinton did to our party: to make us have to cover for him, like his infidelity — if not worse — was the family secret that we couldn’t let outsiders hear.  And obviously, Hillary, as that family’s mommy for decades, will be vulnerable to attacks on that line.)

Now it may well be that, absent such discussions, Hillary wins the nomination.  If Democrats don’t think about how she’s going to be attacked, they can factor that out — despite that those attacks are certainly on their way.  If so, I understand why as a matter of political strategy, you want to banish such discussions as “negative campaigning.”

But those attacks aren’t negative — and in fact they aren’t really campaigning at all.  They’re realist — something that Hillary normally champions.  They are honest discussions about whether certain characteristics or historical events will prevent a given candidate from winning in November.  (You know which Democratic candidate is getting the most unfair treatment in that regard?  Martin O’Malley — because the evisceration that David Chase did of him in The Wire, often considered the best TV show ever, is a serious impediment to his nomination.  How often have we Democrats heard this past year, in quiet conversations, “uh, you know that he was the model for Tommy Carcetti, right?”)

We’ve had these uncomfortable electability discussions before — about whether John Kennedy could win despite being Catholic or whether Obama could win despite being African-American.  But let’s be clear, the discussion about Hillary she is not over whether she can win given her gender.  A woman can absolutely win the Presidency now.  I’d have no problem with Elizabeth Warren as our nominee; I think that she’d have been the strongest one.  She is — to use a phrase that will make Hillary supporters gnash their teeth — “comfortable in her own skin.”

The problem with Hillary is more like the problem with John Kerry — is he, as Bill Clinton was, as Barack Obama was, and as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were — simply appealing enough, given their minuses as well as their pluses, to the American electorate as a whole?  Not because of her gender, but because of her … her?

If we avoid that discussion because it would be “negative campaigning,” then we are sunk.  We cannot base our plans and projections on the presumption that the rest of the electorate evaluates candidates the same way as people involved in Democratic Party hierarchy do.  That would be childish and timid — and we would deserve to lose.

It’s just a shame that, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to treat Hillery the same as any other candidate — and subject her to the terrible, insulting, skeptical appraising political eye — the rest of the country would lose along with us.

won’t “go negative” on the Democratic nominee.  I will vote for the Democratic nominee — sorry to disappoint some readers there.  The question for me is how convincing I will be as an advocate for that nominee.  I’ll be a very good advocate for Sanders.  I don’t think that I’ll convince a single non-Democrat to support Hillary.  Maybe enough will already support her for her to win anyway — gender does help her there — but for the non-Democrats I know, nothing I say will do.  They already know her too well to change their views.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)