Deep structural changes in American politics have brought us to this impasse. They include revisions in congressional rules that have made it easier for the party leadership to impose discipline on their members; the proliferation of interest groups of left and right; the resurgence of overtly partisan forms of media; and a generation-long ideological “sorting-out” of voters (driven largely by the increased prominence of cultural and foreign-policy issues) that has made each party’s electoral coalition much more homogeneous.
But especially in recent years, hyper-partisanship has also been driven and reinforced by the modern presidential campaign. Presidential elections are meant to be tough; they exist to sharpen and clarify differences. But the ever-extending duration of the campaign and the 24/7 intensity of the media coverage that surrounds it systematically encourage distortion and denigration. In theory, the longer campaign and intensified coverage might provide the candidates and the press with a greater chance to carefully explain the differences between the contenders. In practice, the need to break through the constant chatter and drive the daily media narrative—the imperative to win each news cycle—encourages the campaigns to portray policy disagreements as character flaws and to reduce the candidates’ differences to garish stereotypes (Plutocrat! Socialist! Warmonger! Appeaser!). Every campaign press secretary knows that a candidate can attract more media attention with a 30-second attack on his rival than with a 30-minute explanation of his own policies.
Months of this sniping tend to harden the country’s divisions and diminish the eventual winner’s ability to govern. Any goodwill that either nominee evokes among the supporters of the other at the start of the campaign is now reliably extinguished by the end. That dynamic was especially pronounced in 2000 and 2004, when the country was divided almost exactly in half between Bush and his Democratic opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry. The brutal tone and tenor of each of those campaigns—the Swift Boat accusations on one side, or the charges that Bush had knowingly lied to push America into war with Iraq on the other—left many (possibly most) Gore and Kerry supporters utterly disdainful of Bush, and vice versa. After each election, Bush took the oath of office with nearly half the country alienated from him. Bush compounded his problems with a uniquely polarizing style of governing, but Gore or Kerry, had either man won, undoubtedly would have entered office on an equally narrow ledge—facing as much suspicion and resistance from red America as Bush did from the voters in the Democratic coalition.
This year’s campaign has followed many of the peevish conventions of its recent predecessors. Seemingly anything said by anyone connected to either side can spark a firefight that rages across the Internet and the broadcast airwaves for a few hours, only to be succeeded by another eruption 24 hours later. Bloggers of left and right, belligerent talk-radio hosts, and wall-to-wall TV pundits (present company included) have amplified the daily campaign quarrels into an unrelenting background buzz of apparently unstinting conflict. The interest groups and commentators associated with each party have worked tirelessly to inflame their audiences against the other candidate. So, for instance, Arianna Huffington, the born-again liberal commentator, found a particularly contemptuous metaphor for the common liberal argument that McCain had sold his soul to conservatives. “Sure, she’s a whore,” Huffington wrote of McCain, “but she wears an abstinence promise ring and feels totally guilty when she stuffs the money in her bra, so she’s not like all the other whores.” Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, the popular talk-radio host, was describing Obama as “a socialist,” “a fraud,” and an emasculated weakling. “He can’t take a punch, he’s weak, and he whines,” Limbaugh declared this spring. “I’m sure some women find that attractive because they would look at him as a little boy and would want to protect him … But it embarrasses me as a man.”
The candidates themselves have consistently jabbed at each other too, though with a notable difference in tone. Especially early in the campaign, Obama was more persistent in criticizing McCain than vice versa. But Obama’s language about his opponent generally has been restrained. He often calls McCain a “genuine American hero,” and his attacks—most often linking McCain with Bush—are seldom personal.
That’s emphatically not the case when McCain talks about Obama. McCain seems incapable of masking feelings about his younger opponent that border on disdain. He often says that Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has “no experience on national-security issues.” In the spring, while pressing Obama to visit Iraq with him, McCain said he would use such a trip to “educate” his rival. In late May, when Obama voted for a bipartisan Senate proposal to increase benefits for veterans and insinuated that McCain had engaged in “partisan posturing” by opposing the bill as too expensive, McCain responded with a blistering two-page statement that said Obama possessed “less than zero understanding” of the issue. The statement accused Obama of “exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions”—“as he always does.” McCain then insisted that he would not accept criticism on an issue relating to veterans “from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform.” It was like responding to a spitball with a cruise missile.