There is a saying in sports that it isn’t winning or losing that matters, it is how you play the game. In professional sports appropriate conduct is required. The NFL will flag players for personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct. Behave poorly in pro baseball and you are tossed from the game. Ask Lance Armstrong what happens if you get caught cheating. Fair play is as important, if not more important, than the outcome of the game.
Sporting contests, of course, have an organization that sets the rules along with referees or umpires to make sure they are followed. In politics, however, the prevailing cliché is more like winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Unlike professional sports, nobody polices the event so elections become more of a back alley brawl than a serious discussion of the issues.
In some ways voters themselves act as referees. Attack a candidate for controversial votes, such as a middle-of-the-night pay raise, and the electorate may reward you with a win. Dredge up pictures of the candidate doing drugs in college, and the personal attack might be called out-of-bounds by voters.
Even in victory how the race was won can have a big impact on a candidate’s ability to serve once elected. Sometimes the circumstances surrounding an election win can hinder the new office holder, and sometimes the tactics used to win the race will poison the well.
In 2000 George W. Bush won one of the closest and most disputed elections in American history. In his case it wasn’t the campaign itself or how it was conducted that created ill will; it was the closeness of the outcome. Not only did Bush lose the popular vote, winning election in the Electoral College, but it took a highly controversial ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States to bring the election to a resolution. Bush took office amid extreme partisan bitterness. Democrats never fully viewed him as a legitimate president, creating a deep divide that abated only temporarily in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
The 2012 Presidential Election is a prime example of how unsportsmanlike tactics tarnished a win. Mitt Romney prevailed over a number of primary opponents by incinerating the front-runner of the day with negative ads. First Herman Cain, then Rick Perry, blow up Newt Gingrich and then finish off Rick Santorum. It worked as far as gaining the nomination, but in the process voters learned little if anything about Mitt Romney. He never laid the groundwork for his own election, he merely ran up the negative on his opponents. Going into the General Election campaign he was ripe for the picking by Barack Obama.
And the Obama Campaign was ready for the challenge. From the moment it became apparent that Mitt Romney would be the nominee the Obama machine opened up its guns painting the former Massachusetts governor as a vulture capitalist. They turned what should have been his biggest asset as a candidate – successful private sector job creating experience – into his biggest negative. When most voters got their first unfiltered look at Romney in the initial presidential debate, and saw he didn’t have horns and a tail, the Obama strategy almost collapsed. Almost.
Instead, Obama doubled down. He stayed on the attack through the closing hours of the campaign. Unlike his 2008 election which sounded the aspirational theme of hope and change, his 2012 re-election effort was shrill and negative. As a result, the president heads into a second term having divided an already polarized electorate even further.
Now, Barack Obama must govern. Having won re-election through effective class warfare and demonization of the American system of free enterprise, he must deal with those of the other party who believe in growth and opportunity and who now deeply distrust the man who will sit in the White House for the next four years. Worse, the job creators are offended and scared of the taxes and regulations that surely will come. Thus the very people who can pull America out of the lingering economic downturn will play defense rather than join the team.
Former President Jimmy Carter called it a malaise. And that will be the legacy of the second Obama Administration. Yes, Barack Obama won the election. But he won ugly. And, as George W. Bush learned a decade ago, there is a price to be paid for how you win the game.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)