The Republican primaries are getting ugly. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been attacking each other with venom in their quest to secure the GOP's nomination. And while last night's debate in Florida had quite a few moments of real issue-based discussion—NBC's moderator, Brian Williams, should be commended for running a respectable and informative debate—a large portion of the debate descended into ad hominem attacks between the two front runners.
The termination of all personal attacks in election campaigns would be a noble and significant goal, however, it is probably unrealistic. The electorate too often jumps on juicy and vitriolic stories and character assassinations, even if voters simultaneously claim to abhor such behavior. The truth is that such tactics unfortunately work and candidates know this.
However, if running only issue-based campaigns is too lofty of a goal in general election campaigns, it is indubitably wise to terminate these tactics in party primaries. While primary candidates are rivals they are also allies in a broader conflict. By relying on tactics that may further their immediate goal, they often simultaneously undermine the longer-term goal. In the interest of winning the metaphorical war, not just the battle, Republican presidential candidates would be sagacious to change their tactics quickly.
By attacking each other in such personal ways, whether drawing out Herman Cain's infidelity, portraying Mitt Romney as a rich, out-of-touch, low-tax-paying elite, or labeling Newt Gingrich an "influence peddler," Republican candidates are only doing the Democrats' dirty-work. The GOP campaigns are unearthing truths and partial-truths that the Obama campaign may never have seized upon and will certainly use in the general election. This has gone a long way towards facilitating the reelection of Obama, particularly as the primaries head towards the spring.
Even more damning is the fact that the Republican candidates are systematically tearing each other down. These candidates seem to be forgetting that while they are currently competing for the votes of Republican primary voters, they are also being watched by the independent and liberal voters that they need to sway the general election towards the right. The things they say now will stick; if, for instance, Romney is successfully portrayed as an elitist, it will be hard for him to shake that image over the summer and fall.
Whether Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich ultimately wins, the loser will inevitably endorse the nominee. Neither prefers Obama over his Republican rival. Yet after such a brutal campaign it is hard to see either able to successfully stump for the other, particularly when there are hours of footage personally castigating the former rival. Instead, the ultimate winner runs the risk of Pyrrhic victory, defeating his Republican rival only to face Obama in a beauty contest with two black eyes and a chipped front tooth.
The primary campaign should be a time of sincere and honest discussion over issues. Candidates should attempt to distinguish themselves on the subtleties of their positions and the nuances of their beliefs. It is okay, even necessary, to indicate how one candidate differs from his opponents. Republican voters should know which type of conservative candidate they are selecting. Ron Paul's interactions with the other candidates are usually exemplary in this regard. Paul, for example, outlines significant differences in his foreign policy beliefs. He will criticize the mainstream Republican foreign policy, but rarely descends into personal attacks. This behavior is generally reciprocated by Romney and Gingrich, who may call Paul's foreign policy dangerous [it is] but do not attack the congressman personally. As a result, Republican and non-primary voters are informed and learn a bit more about their prospective presidents.
This is how a primary campaign should be run. It should be about the issues, not about deconstructing an opponent's character or personal life. Lively disagreement and debate is a must, but ultimately the GOP is a team. The candidates should compete vigorously, but not in a way that undermines the ultimate goal. They should fight on the issues not on the alleged personal failures of their Republican rivals.