In This Case, It’s Fair to Blame the Messenger

by Stuart Rothenberg December 9, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

It’s December, and we’re all filled with the holiday spirit. So I thought it was time for me to write a piece disagreeing with one of my fellow Roll Call columnists.

David Winston argues in his Dec. 1 column that Republicans lost in November, and will lose again, if they continue to rely on “the issue-less, relentlessly negative campaigns that party operatives have promoted for years; campaigns aimed almost entirely at turning out an angry base rather than appealing to a broader coalition.”

“The negative campaign strategy, tactics and training that have characterized Republican operations for most of the past two decades are more than outdated. They simply don’t work,” he writes.

He then blasts the National Republican Congressional Committee for running nothing but negative ads last cycle (based on a quick check of YouTube) and complains that the party missed an opportunity to have a “conversation” with the American public.

But Winston doesn’t stop there. He repeatedly calls for the GOP to adopt a “forward-looking, inclusive, modernized agenda,” and he asserts that his party has ignored new media technology and must embrace “a modern approach to campaigns.” Near the end of his piece, he refers to the “antiquated notion that all politics is local.”

While I certainly agree that the GOP “base vote” strategy is no longer appropriate given the bent of independents and the shrinking Republican identification, Winston’s insistence that Republican candidates fared so poorly because the party failed to have a positive agenda and candidates relied almost exclusively on negative campaigning is simply wrong.

Let’s be very clear: Republicans got spanked for the second election in a row because the GOP brand was badly damaged by President George W. Bush. Of course, Republican ineptness (and ethical lapses) on Capitol Hill also hurt the party, as did news events and a changing issue mix. But all of this can be traced back to the president’s performance over the previous eight years.

The idea that Congressional Republicans could have redefined their party before the elections is not credible. Sitting presidents and presidential nominees define a party.

As for “negative” campaigns, 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.

For years, I watched NRCC operatives Terry Nelson, Mike McElwain and Jonathan Poe successfully hold onto GOP House majorities by bombing Democratic challengers with attacks, making many of those challengers unacceptable alternatives to inept Republican incumbents. Those “negative attacks” worked because the party had the resources to drive them home even in mildly unfavorable environments.

Last cycle and this year, Democratic candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were every bit as negative as the NRCC used to be. And in both cycles, Democrats had the financial resources and national mood to make those attacks particularly effective.

The truth, of course, is that good negative ads still work, though Republicans had a harder time making their negative attacks stick on Democrats in 2006 and 2008 because the public has had such an unfavorable view of the president and his party.

Republicans were no longer viewed as credible messengers (regardless of whether the messages were positive or negative), and it’s hard to have a “conversation” with someone who isn’t listening.

Even with that problem, the NRCC and Republican candidates’ “negative” attacks on Democrats Linda Stender (N.J.), Mike Montagano (Ind.) and Darcy Burner (Wash.) in the final months of the 2008 campaign may well have saved those seats for the GOP this cycle.

Winston cites the NRCC ads on YouTube as evidence of Republican negativity. Well, if you check the DCCC’s ads on YouTube, you’ll see dozens of negative ads compared with a single positive one (for Kansas incumbent Nancy Boyda, who asked the DCCC to stay out of her race and who lost).

As for Winston’s comment that the idea that all politics is local is “antiquated,” he’s only half right. Politics is neither entirely local nor entirely national. It depends on the cycle.

We clearly have seen two consecutive “nationalized” cycles where the wind was strongly at the Democratic Party’s back and in the GOP’s face. Changing the wind, as Winston seems to suggest, was impossible, so the only hope that Republican candidates had was to try to localize their races, thereby changing the nature of voters’ choices.

Finally, it is difficult to dismiss Winston’s argument that Republicans need a “modern agenda” and must employ “new media technology.” But parties often run out of ideas after eight years in the White House, and not every new technology (such as Twitter, which he cites) is a game changer.

There are plenty of things that the GOP needs to fix to come back from its back-to-back defeats — from raising more money and getting better candidates to repairing its image and coming up with an appealing agenda. But it’s time to jettison the idea that Republicans lost in 2008 primarily because they were “too negative.”