Wanted: Happy Warriors

Politics these days is mostly running on fear, not optimism. The consequence could be lower turnout in 2016.

July 14, 2014
FDR
True Story: Sitting in an armchair, brushing up on the 1988 presidential campaign in preparation for writing this column, I fell asleep, deeply asleep.  
 
(And, no, I was not reading "Wake Us When It's Over" by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover. That ode to a one-sided campaign was about Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election). 
 
The reason for my nostalgic interest in reliving the faux drama of Michael Dukakis versus George Bush was that election campaign represented the unquestioned low point of my nearly four decades covering presidential politics. 
 
The lack of excitement embodied by Dukakis could be summed up in a single sentence from his acceptance speech in Atlanta: "This election is not about ideology, it's about competence." What has been airbrushed away by time is that George H.W. Bush (as he's known today) ran one of the most cynical campaigns in modern history. Following the playbook set out by strategist Lee Atwater and media consultant Roger Ailes, Bush derided Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor, over his refusal to mandate that teachers recite the Pledge of Allegiance; implicitly maligned the Democratic nominee's patriotism by campaigning at a flag factory; and pandered to the worst fears of white voters by stressing that Massachusetts had given a weekend furlough to an African-American violent criminal named Willie Horton.
 
What got me going down memory lane was thinking about the connection between optimism and voter turnout. There seemed to be little to be hopeful about in the 1988 campaign — a contest between Dukakis' purported competence and Bush's unconvincing promises of a third Ronald Reagan term. The result of this drab election: In 1988, for the first time since World War II, the number of votes cast for president fell compared to the prior election.
 
That bygone election serves as a reminder that the most serious voter turnout problem in America remains the nature of the choices on the ballot. Of course, there are rightful concerns about legal barriers to voting ranging from burdensome identification requirements to antiquated registration restrictions. But unless a candidate running for major office inspires optimism about the future then the rationales for voting are reduced to fear and civic obligation. 
 
Right now — and this is the sad part — American politics is running almost entirely on fear. Judging from 2014 TV ads and candidate websites, Republicans remain obsessed with the dread specter of Barack Obama from the president's health-care program to the outlandish fantasy that the government is going to confiscate their guns. Democrats are equally determined to mobilize their voting base with doomsday scenarios about women losing access to birth control and Republicans eviscerating Medicare.
 
True, it is challenging for anyone to sound a positive theme in this year's midterm elections with the congressional approval rating in national polls hovering around 13 percent. But the sheer weight of super PAC commercials coupled with hefty ad spending by the candidates themselves suggest that this will probably be a record campaign year for nonstop nattering negativism. 
 
The evidence is murky about whether negative TV spots depress turnout. But political science studies on the topic have focused almost exclusively on attack ads broadcast by candidates. Super PAC ads sponsored by amorphously named groups with no overt partisan identification may be more persuasive and, as a result, invite more voter cynicism. Also, academic studies from prior decades may be outmoded since the volume of negative ads on TV is mushrooming almost as fast as the bank accounts of campaign consultants. 
 
All of this suggests that we are mostly flying blind when it comes to deciphering the connection between attack ads and voter turnout in a 2014 or 2016 context. But everything I know from my years of covering politics suggests that constantly hearing charges that candidates are knaves, fools and would-be commissars is not much of a motivation to go vote. 
 
What works best in sparking turnout is a candidate who is a Happy Warrior, a line that Franklin Roosevelt used in 1924 to describe Al Smith. But it was FDR himself who personified the Happy Warrior with his jaunty manner and unflagging good cheer in public. John Kennedy was another Happy Warrior in 1960 as he promised, "to get America moving again." 
 
In politics, hope floats. Which is why it can encompass Jimmy Carter promising to help America recover from Watergate with "a government as good as its people." Or the Gipper and "morning in America." Remember that Bill Clinton in 1992 ran as the "Man from Hope." And even George W. Bush in 2000 portrayed himself as a "compassionate conservative" who would bring honor and dignity back to the White House after the self-indulgent excesses of the Clinton years.
 
Optimism, alas, has been in short supply in America since the high hopes aroused by Obama in 2008 burst from partisan discord and economic stagnation. Few noticed amid Obama's comfortable reelection victory that turnout dropped by more than 3 percent between 2008 and 2012 among the voting age population. Obama's sophisticated get-out-the-vote apparatus managed to again turn out African-Americans and younger voters in sufficient numbers in 2012. But among white voters making between $50,000 and $100,000 — a Republican-leaning group — turnout declined by 15 percent from 2008 to 2012. 
 
(The statistics in the prior paragraph are taken from "After Hope and Change, the 2012 Elections and American Politics" written by political scientists James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch and John J. Pitney Jr.)
 
While all predictions this far in advance about 2016 are offered without a money-back guarantee, it seems likely that voter turnout will again be below 2008 levels. The reason: the Happy Warrior Gap. At the moment, there appears to be no one in either party who can inspire much optimism among the voters. There is no money to pay for major programs; no bipartisan consensus on working together to solve national problems; no sense that economic prosperity can be shared; and no easy remedies for a deteriorating international environment. It would take an exceptional political leader to transcend such a bleak backdrop. 
 
Assuming she runs, Hillary Clinton offers the Democrats many things — experience, competence and a steadfast belief in incremental steps. But judging from her "Hard Choices" book tour, she is not a political figure apt to arouse wild-in-the-streets enthusiasm. The Republicans' problem is an ideology based on rolling back the Obama years rather than charting an inspiring new direction for America. You can, in theory, win an election by promising that things will be less bad, but that is not an uplifting message for voters desperate for reasons to hope.  
 
Maybe my grim mood about the 2016 election is unwarranted. Or, even more likely, American politics will again display its continuing ability to surprise. That is what happened after the dismal 1988 campaign. As president, George H.W. Bush merely presided over victory in the Cold War and triumphed in the Gulf War. And, of course, the ungrateful voters in 1992 turned Bush into our last one-term president. 
 
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

(Photo: AP)