When I was a little boy, and we heard either erroneous or
cruel comments made by one child to another, we were told to
respond "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words
will never hurt me." It was a simple nursery rhyme device, but
it contained an important basic truth.
In the current presidential race, as in previous ones, competing
candidates hurl tough charges against each other. Some are
valid, many are false, most are only partially true and taken out
of context. In today's age of the internet, text messages,
as well as the usual print and broadcast media, direct attacks
by candidates and their political advertising, or the relatively new
phenomenon of "SuperPacs" which are not controlled by the
candidates themselves but which work on a candidate's behalf,
there are brutal verbals attacks 24/7 seemingly everywhere,
especially in those states which are conducting primaries or
caucuses in the near future.
Many folks decry these tactics, although they are as old as the
Republic itself, and few can quickly determine whether or not
they are true or false. The SuperPacs particularly seem to be an
unfair innovation in the presidential election cycle, and probably
should be eliminated in new election reforms in the future, but
for now, they are part of the election cycle.
As candidates have learned one more time in the 2012 election
cycle, negative ads can indeed hurt. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney
have experienced this personally, and now that Mr. Santorum is
enjoying some recent success, he will no doubt experience this, too.
But the basic insight of "sticks and stones......" remains fundamentally
true as well because voters pay a lot of attention to how a candidate
responds to verbal attacks. Mr. Gingrich began the campaign calling
for the "Reagan rule" of no attacks, and he put this into practice by
praising his rivals while calling for them to debate the issues. As his
political fortunes soon soared, he was predictably attacked by most of his
competitors, particularly Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul. After these attacks
seemed to work in Iowa, and Mr. Gingrich fell behind, he promised to
respond in kind, and he did. This did not seem to help him anywhere
but South Carolina, and Mr. Gingrich's standing steadily declined in the
polls. It may seem unfair that Mr. Romney, for example, does not seem
to be criticized for his attacks, but part of this may be accounted for by
the fact that Mr. Romney stays carefully on his message. Mr. Gingrich,
on the other hand, seems to take the attacks so personally that they
distract him from his message.
With about three weeks to Super Tuesday, Mr. Gingrich has one more
major opportunity to stage another political comeback. He continues to
be attacked in ads by both Mr. Romney and now Mr. Santorum (who
understandably tries to claim he is now the alternative to Mr. Romney).
Mr. Gingrich has been one of the most interesting candidates in this
cycle, has staged two dramatic comebacks, and through the debates and
some of his proposals, helped greatly make the Republican contest more
interesting to voters nationwide. His suggestion of a colony on the moon,
initially ridiculed by his opponents and some in the media, may turn out
to be the most original and lasting idea presented in the 2012 election.
But he still seems to be hypersensitive to the attacks made against him
and the tactics of his opponents. I would suggest that presidential
politics is as "hardball" as it gets. and that allowing the tactics and words
of others to keep a candidate from pursuing his best course is a grievous
mistake and a formula for defeat.
I have repeatedly said that Mr. Romney remains the favorite to win his
party's nomination, but there is plenty of hard evidence that the nomination
contest is not over. Mr. Santorum continues to enjoy his latest "bubble"
(although there are indications that he is already beginning to fade), and one
more time, Mr. Gingrich has been written off by his rivals and the pundits.
Super Tuesday lies ahead, and after that the delegate-rich states of Texas,
Pennsylvania, New York, California and most of the midwest. If Mr.
Gingrich cannot return to his original plan, and show his strengths to
voters, including his mastery of the issues, his new ideas, his fearless
populism, the voters, too, will write him off. From that, unlike the opinions
of the punditocracy and the spinmeisters, there can be no recovery.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.