Is this presidential election a war or a courtship?

Last week, the Obama campaign ran a cheap-shot ad on the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of the ad was Bill Clinton effectively talking about the decision to kill the terrorist. But, in the middle, the Obama people threw in a low-minded attack on Romney. The slam made Clinton look small, it made Obama look small, it turned a moment of genuine accomplishment into a political ploy, but it did follow the rules of gangland: At every second, attack; at every opportunity, drive a shiv between the ribs.

This martial-, gangland-style of campaigning apparently makes the people in the campaigns feel hardheaded, professional and Machiavellian. But it’s not clear that it’s actually the best way to win an election. That’s because the style is based on a series of dubious assumptions: that the harshest language is the most persuasive to voters; that what feels good to you as a competitive combatant will also look most attractive to detached onlookers; that over the duration of a six-month campaign, daily combat will continue to look compelling rather than cumulatively revolting; that in a campaign dominated by “super PAC” negativity, a presidential candidate is better served by wading into the brawl rather than separating himself from it.

The campaign-as-warfare metaphor may seem sensible to those inside the hothouse. It may make sense if you think today’s swing voters hunger for more combat, more harshness and more attack.

But it’s probably bad sociology and terrible psychology, given the general disgust with conventional politics.

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