One of the things I have struggled most with throughout this primary campaign is how to square Obama's obvious desire to run a positive, issue-oriented campaign, with the countervailing need in modern day politics to "go negative." It's something I've thought about more and more as the McCain campaign has taken the gloves off -- going after Obama for being an elitist, for being a celebrity; running ads featuring dark images of terrorists with shady voiceovers about Iran, then insinuating that Obama feels Iran is only a "tiny" threat; starting a Web site dedicated to the fact that Obama is "not ready" to be president; using some of Hillary Clinton's own footage for a 3 a.m. ad of their own. Some of these ads may be "fair" -- certainly, a candidate's readiness to be president is an issue -- but there can be no disputing that all of them are "negative." And can there be any doubt, especially if Obama is in the lead, that we will see Rev. Wright ads in the future?
I sat in on a focus group a few months back that was extremely eye-opening. A moderator was asking a group of Jewish swing voters questions about Barack Obama and John McCain -- I watched from the other side of a one-way window, along with a few pollsters. (They knew we were there.) The moderator read a dozen verifiable, true positive statements about Obama. Then the moderator read a dozen verifiable, true negative statements about McCain. When responding to the positive statements (things like: Barack Obama has proposed a $1,000 tax cut for the Middle Class; Barack Obama says the security of Israel is sacrosanct, and he has the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Council), the voters were not uniformly impressed; many questioned the veracity of the statements. When responding to the negative stuff (things like: McCain has said he doesn't know much about the economy; McCain has said he could envision a long-term presence in Iraq, much like what we have in Korea and Japan), the group got totally riled up. Angry. Indignant. Frankly, I did, too. The message I took home with me was a disappointing one: Going negative works. And it works, well.
Yesterday, the National Jewish Democratic Council hosted a square table discussion at the Convention Center downtown, focusing on "Practicing Politics With Jewish Values." The room was packed to overflowing -- in part because it was held next door to the room where Hillary Clinton had just addressed her delegates -- many of whom filtered in after Hillary finished speaking.
I was particularly moved by the arguments made by Steve Rabinowitz, a kippah-wearing veteran of dozens of political campaigns, and former Bill Clinton White House aide, who currently runs the media messaging firm, Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications.
"I'm about very aggressive politics," he began. He went on to say that he sees two kinds of acceptable messages -- positive, and what he called "contrast" ads, where candidates drawn distinctions between themselves and their opponents.
He noted that Judaism prohibits Lashon Harah -- or evil speech against someone else -- citing Leviticus 19:16: "Do not deal basely with your countrymen." Maimonides, he said, has an even tougher standard: you can't tear down your opponent even if what you say is true. The very next line in Leviticus, though, has been interpreted by the sages to mean that we are not to "standy idly by" if the blood of our contrymen is being spilled.
"We have allowance for this in the text," Rabinowitz said, "so we can both be aggressive political campaigners and not feel we are violating our Jewish ethics at the same time."
"For me -- Obama's political and intellectual blood is being spilled." (In particular, participants spoke of the smears against Obama -- that he is a Muslim, for instance, who attended a radical madrassa as a youth.)
After the event, I went up to Rabinowitz and asked him to expound on his argument. Where, I asked, is the line in "contrast" advertising. He said, without hesitation: the personal attack. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, teaches that "a controversy for heaven's sake has lasting value, while a controvery not for heaven's sake will not endure." "Heaven's sake," in this case, is a controversy about Torah or law -- substance, as opposed to style.
"For me," he said, it means "I can't attack McCain on his age or his temperament, his mental competence, his wealth, his personal-life." But on the issues -- like how to best support Israel -- contrast ads are fair game.
Certainly, though, the McCain side has already hit Obama on his personal life -- noting that he has an aquaintance who was once a member of the Weather Underground, for example, or painting him as a Harvard elitist. This, I said, even as McCain has seven houses, and flies around the country in his wife's corporate jet. I have to admit, I said -- I've felt damn good when Biden has hit McCain for his wealth and extravagent, 30,000-foot life style.
"The biggest sin in politics is hyprocrisy," Rabinowtiz said. "Corruption is bad, but hypocrisy is worse. It you are corrupt, and you campaigned against corruption -- it's worse." (Eliot Spitzer comes to mind.)
"Is pointing out that someone is a hypocrite a personal attack -- even if it's true?" he asked. "That's what I'm still conflicted about."
"Defending Obama is no problem," he said. "Counter-attacking -- that's the dilemma."
I suppose if I'm looking for something definitive, I'm in the wrong religion.
I have to say, though, that I was struck by the fact that we were having this conversation at all at the Democratic National Convention. Dan Shapiro, one of Barack Obama's top liasions to the Jewish community, was in the room for the conversation. After listening to the discussion, he noted the value of "intellectual inquiry"; the value in "acknowledging the gaps in one's knowledge"; the value of "intellectual curiosity" for leadership.
I left with the sense that the Obama campaign will, and should, continue to hold itself to a higher standard --even as it pushes and questions the boundaries -- as this campaign moves into its next phase. The campaign will not -- it can not -- stand idly by. It will draw contrasts, big time.
This work begins in earnest in just a few hours.