The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

No-nothing politics

August 5, 2008

What should we consider the limits of responsible campaigning?

Like many people, my ideal campaign would focus on policy issues rather than attacks on character. A President’s character matters, of course, and I see no ethical reason why attacks on character should be “out of bounds” in a Presidential campaign (but the qualities that make someone a good leader of the Executive Branch are, I would argue, quite different than those the electorate fixates upon).

We can all agree, I imagine, that dishonest attacks–those predicated on clear cut falsehoods–have no place in an ethical political campaign. But what are the limits of cynical opportunism?

Let’s consider four examples: the “celebrity” narrative, support for a “gas tax holiday,” a tax on “windfall profits,” support for expanded offshore oil drilling, and the “tire pressure” attack on Obama.

Aspects of the McCain campaign’s attempt to paint Obama as a “celebrity” strike me as icky. But if McCain ran them against a white candidate there would be no issue of racial overtones. The problem isn’t so much the “celebrity” attack itself, but particular ways Obama’s opponents advance it. So I’m not prepared to consider this line of attack, at least in principle, “out of bounds.”

McCain’s and Clinton’s embrace of a “gas tax holiday” was obviously an act of political expediency. There’s no reason to believe that the drop in gas taxes would be passed on, in any significant way, to the consumer. The net effect would likely be to shift revenue away from the Government and into the hands of companies that hardly need it.

I also view proposals for a tax on petroleum comapnies’ “windfall profits” as rather dubious. There are plenty of good reasons to reduce (direct and indirect) subsidies to oil companies, and even to increases taxes on consumption as part of an overall effort to shift US energy usage away from fossil fuels. But the “windfall profits” tax strikes me as mainly about blaming “big oil” for the price of the goods they supply, when most of the immediate supply and demand dynamics are outside of their control.

It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that I also look down upon an expansion of offshore drilling. It would do little to reduce US oil dependency; those in favor of it, by and large, are seizing on public frustration with high gasoline prices to do a favor to petroleum companies at the expense of the natural environment.

So while all three of these proposals amount to cynical attempts to push bad policies for political purposes, I don’t see them as out of bounds. Why? Because proponents can mount plausible arguments in their favor given specific policy preferences and political values.

Which leaves us with the “tire pressure” attack on Obama. Here I do think the McCain campaign has crossed a line. Why? Because it is unequivocally true that following Obama’s (and Schwarzenegger’s) advice would immediately increase the supply of gasoline, and would do so, in fact, more than offshore drilling [clarification: in the short term; see my most recent post].

A consequence of the attack–one unrelated to the legitimate goal of defeating Obama–is therefore to make many Republicans believe that it is prima facie absurd to take low-cost steps to reduce their gasoline consumption. Thus, the attackers are actively misleading their own supporters, and attempting to mislead the population, on an issue in which there really isn’t any grounds for debate.

The premise of the attack: you want to pay less at the pump. The consequence of the attack itself: some proportion of GOP supporters will pay more at the pump.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.