In my column today at The Fiscal Times, I gave Mark Halperin of Time Magazine a lot of credit for being one of the very few journalists that spoke out about Barack Obama’s lack of a second-term agenda or much substance at all after the debate on Tuesday night. We’ll get back to the column in a moment, but first Halperin extends his analysis today after a 36-hour cycle of Bindergate. Halperin can’t believe that we’re less than three weeks out from the election, and all that seems to concern the Leader of the Free World and his brain trust is the word “binders”:
Halperin’s right — this is what’s wrong with our politics at the moment, but it’s also a deliberate strategy from Team Obama. He can’t run on his record; his record includes a dramatic erosion of median household income during the recovery that started on his watch, as well as the lowest civilian population participation rate for the workforce since 1981. Obama won’t run on his agenda, because he either doesn’t have one (and he certainly hasn’t published one or pushed it at either debate, choosing to attack Romney instead), or because, as Mickey Kaus writes, any honesty about his second-term agenda would cost him the election.
That sets this election up as a contest between a challenger with an agenda and an incumbent who refuses to provide one, whether purposefully or simply out of incompetence. Either way, I argue in my column that this sets up a dangerous precedent:
Will it work? Can an incumbent run a substance-free, negative campaign to victory? Two trends suggest that the answer is no. First, the campaign never did do that much damage to Romney over the summer. On occasions, Romney did some damage to himself, but with fleeting impact. Since the beginning of this campaign until the end of September, polling in this campaign has remained tight, usually within the margin of error, even if Obama edged Romney for most of that period.
Second, the strategy hit an iceberg in the first debate. Far from the caricature of Romney on which the Obama strategy relied, Romney demonstrated presidential mien and a clear grasp of data in the Denver match-up. Obama spent most of the evening on his heels, unable to effectively parry Romney’s attacks on his record or match Romney’s vision for the next four years. Obama and his team fixed the performance issue without addressing the structural flaw of having no real positive argument for voters to support him.
It is still certainly possible that Obama can win this election using this strategy, but it has some unnerving implications for politics in the future. While negative campaigning has a long history in the US – all the way back to the poisonous atmosphere of the 1800 election – voters have always had significant substance to consider when choosing candidates.
If they reward a substance-free campaign like Obama’s, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future, as politicians weigh the risk-reward ratio of having substantive proposals against the easy path of namecalling and scare-mongering. If that does come to pass, we can thank our zinger-obsessed media for helping us along the way.
Halperin is saying the same thing in these videos, with some sense of urgency. After all, the summer is the “silly season,” when campaigns can take fliers on substance-free attacks while they gear up for the general election. If a campaign’s messaging revolves around Big Bird, binders, and dirty dishes three weeks before the election, it’s a sign of political exhaustion and intellectual bankruptcy.