Against A 'Positive' Convention

President Bush speaks at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on Monday, July 12, 2004.
This column from The New Republic was written by Jonathan Chait.

The challenge for Democrats at the convention is to project an uplifting, positive message, and not to give in to the rabid impulses of their hard core anti-Bush base. That, in any case, is the line that seems to be programmed into the brain of every reporter and pundit in Boston. Am I the only one who wants to retch when he hears this, and not just because it's been repeated so often?

First, the notion of Bush-bashing as the sole province of lefty radicals reflects a deep misunderstanding. Opposition to Bush may have a radicalizing effect, but it's not a radical phenomenon. One of the peculiarities of Bush's presidency is that many of his most outspoken critics -- Howard Dean, Paul Krugman, Al Gore -- had well-established moderate credentials before he took office. Even the Democratic Leadership Council has taken a stance of searing opposition to Bush. Sure, radicals like Michael Moore have glommed onto the Bush-bashing movement, but fundamentally the intense opposition to Bush is a product of the president's radicalism and partisanship, not that of his critics.

The corollary is that opposition to Bush, far from being a minority notion confined to blue state salons, is actually quite widespread. Bush's job approval rating has consistently remained below 50 percent. In fact, the proportion of Americans who want Bush out of office is substantially larger than the proportion who want Kerry to replace him. So the idea that boosting Kerry is a mainstream sentiment, and bashing Bush a minority sentiment, has it backwards.

Now, that may be exactly why it makes some strategic sense for Democrats to spend more time emphasizing Kerry's positives than Bush's negatives. They already have a solid anti-Bush majority, so all they need to do is turn those anti-Bush voters into pro-Kerry voters. The DNC's strategy also has the added benefit of establishing a higher standard that Republicans will invariably fail to meet. When Republicans next month focus most of their energy on denigrating Kerry -- which looks at this point like their only viable strategy -- the media will inevitably bash their negativity.

But that merely brings me to the most annoying thing about the sanctimonious insistence upon positive campaigning. The political press simply can't let go of the idea that puffing up your guy is somehow better for democracy than tearing down the other guy. I don't think that's correct in general. The relevant gauge is truth. I think accurate negative claims are better than inaccurate positive claims.

Moreover, if there's one time when negativity would do some real good for the body politic, it's now. For most of the last three years, Democrats have been a minority in both the House and Senate, and thus lacked a megaphone to critique Bush. And Bush has enjoyed an extraordinary series of honeymoons: first the wave of enforced unity after the Florida fiasco; then the genuinely felt unity after 9/11; then a smaller version of the same phenomenon before and during the first stages of the Iraq war. As a result, he has been unusually insulated from criticism. There are major lines of attack against Bush -- that he has inadequately funded homeland security, that he has been unusually profligate in spending tax dollars to bribe swing constituencies -- that are largely unfamiliar to most Americans.

Given that the convention is one of the few chances Democrats have had to make their case against Bush, there's something a bit perverse about this insistence that they don't use it to indict a president who has left even many of his loyal supporters feeling disgruntled. Refraining from making that case may be good for Kerry, up to a point. But that doesn't make it good for the rest of us.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at TNR.
Jonathan Chait