All quiet on the Iowa front?

Question: What does it take to silence politicians?
Answer: Fear.

That’s right. Good, ol’ fashioned, fear. The kind of fear that is mere smoke and mirrors, a sleight of logic built up in one’s own mind. Kind of like being afraid of the Devil.

Chris Cilliza and Shailagh Murray take on the matter of what seems to be a dearth of candidate endorsements among prominent Democrats in advance of the Iowa caucuses later this week. The first part is the kind of pabulum best left in the past, say, when writing filler for the junior-high school newspaper, speculating about the silence of such top Democrats as Al Gore, John Kerry, and … uh … Chuck Grassley. Huh? Oh, well, it’s an Iowa thing. Fine. Never mind.

The second portion is mildly … er … less bad. Okay, that’s not fair. What appears to be Cilliza’s part is as fine a point as any for a superficial dipping of the toe to test the political waters:

The final week before any high-profile election is usually filled with charges and countercharges by the leading candidates — generally delivered via hundreds of television commercials.

But, with the Iowa caucuses just days away, it looks as if not a single truly “negative” ad (or even the more mild “comparative” commercial) will run before Hawkeye State Democrats gather on Thursday.

Negativity is not absent, by any means, from the brawl at the front of the pack, but as Cillizza notes, “Thin gruel, to say the least.”

The Obama campaign, for instance, took an oblique swipe at a labor group’s independent expenditure campaign on behalf of Senator Clinton’s run for the Ticket, accusing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of “spending millions to stop change”. And Clinton has lashed out, but at President Bush, inviting television viewers to speculate how the year would have gone with a different executive. The Edwards campaign focused its negative energies against American corporations, which is by now standard fare.

Cillizza asks, “Whatever happened to good old knock-down, drag-out politics?” It is, I suppose, a fair question. And Erik Smith, a Democratic consultant whose credentials include former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 2004 campaign, made the point that unintended consequences make risk dangerous in a tight race:

“In a tight multi-candidate primary, the overriding concern is the ricochet,” Smith said. “Each candidate needs to make their strongest possible closing argument, and there is no appetite for the potential unintended consequences of a negative ad this late in a competitive race.”

Candidates worried about a ricochet need only look back to 2004. In that race, Gephardt and former Vermont governor Howard Dean unloaded on each other for weeks on television, only to watch it backfire as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Edwards shot the gap into first and second place in the caucuses.

Although let’s be clear on this one: Gephardt never stood a chance to begin with. It is, in a way, strange to think that it is the scream that finally hauled Dean into the abyss. Playing Kilkenny cats with Dick Gephardt seems an unwise tactical decision, although there is something to be said with polishing your source’s credentials.

Quite obviously, though, the risk factor is enormous. The ugly spectacle of the Clinton and Obama campaigns fighting over foreign policy hurt them both in July, when John Edwards took the lead in a poll by Des Moines television station KCCI, largely on the merit of his colleagues’ six-point slips over the course of a month.

Perhaps more importantly, though—or, at least, we hope it is—this is a year in which many Democrats and supporters feel the White House is theirs for the taking. A Republican victory, as many see it, will depend on a spectacular dissolution of the Democratic push for the White House. And while the Democratic congressional leadership might be doing their best to help President Bush and the Republicans, the presidential candidates are, for the time being at least, still trying to focus their energies winning.

And while we can only wait to find out what the six days ‘twixt Iowa and New Hampshire will bring, it is enough that the Democratic candidates should remember the simple fact that, in the end, they are all on the same team. It’s not like I don’t have my favorites, and it’s not like one of the front runners doesn’t worry me at least a little. But right now all are polling well against the GOP, and I would support any of the Democratic candidates—yes, even Mike Gravel, if … er … well, yeah—come the general election in November. So for now the outlook is positive for Democratic voters, and it would serve the candidates well to remember that through this primary season. Someone is going to win in Iowa, and if it’s close, as polls suggest it will be, we really need the candidates to keep the larger goal in mind. If someone—especially a front runner—gets blown out of the water, it will not be time to panic, and Democratic voters should, I believe, make a point of actually punishing any candidates who forget this and come out blazing angrily after their colleagues.

So the voters should take note: politicians are human beings, too, insofar as fear is one of the most effective influences around. As long as the candidates are under the impression that everything is on the line, they will hesitate. It will be a matter of discipline if the primary season keeps the front runners in close combat; the potential backlash is far greater than any minor statistical gain that a negative advert can offer. Who will break first? And how much damage can they do, not to their opponents but to an already precarious Democratic Party and our hope for the nation’s future future? That hope, after all, while cynics would, perhaps properly, call it irrational, is what keeps these candidates relevant.

Wow. Look at all those commas.

We, the voters, ought not be afraid. We ought to be willing to say, “We’ll come down to your offices and make an ugly scene.”  We can make that spectral fear of backlash real and true.  Let’s see who breaks first. Let’s see who gets desperate and goes negative against fellow Democrats. If the Clinton-Obama slip in July was not enough to make the point clear, consider Cillizza’s comment about Edwards:

Edwards rode to a surprisingly strong second-place finish in 2004 on the strength of his sunny optimism, and his numbers have moved up of late as he has transitioned back into that message for the final days of this campaign.

In the first place, a note to Mr. Cillizza: “transition” is a fucking noun!

More relevantly, while the decision of the Democratic candidates to lay into Hillary Clinton in November may have knocked the New York Senator off her pedestal, the spectacle was comedic fodder that only hurt the Democrats’ stature—already weakened by Congressional policy failures—in the eyes of many.

This is a time when we need the good vibrations. Save the mudslinging for another day. Remember that, when the time comes for the chosen candidate to make a final run for the White House, just about any truth to be told about the GOP will be seen as mudslinging. The rhetorical arsenals will be burgeoning, and it would be best if, when Republicans head out with their shovels to find something to throw back, they’re not simply echoing the Democratic field.