The Case for Not Going Negative

11/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So if Barack Obama cavorts with terrorists (Bill Ayers) and John McCain runs around with lobbyists (Charles Keating), why bother vote -- since both candidates will bring Armageddon to the American Dream as we know it?

That is the feeling among a wide swath of the undecided electorate, who are growing fed up by both campaigns and may just stay home November 4. Obama has promised he will not be the first to throw fire but will be the last one standing in a firefight. Ok, fine, but why feel the need to counterattack in the first place?

The reason is Obama has learned all the wrong lessons from the "swift boat" debacle of 2004. Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that if you do not counter false claims made by your opponent in the media, you will get pummeled in the polls.

That's total bunk. John Kerry lost in 2004 not because he was "swift boated"-- which assumes he was a brilliant campaigner and candidate, if it just weren't for those pesky war vets. No, Kerry got spanked in 2004 because he has the personality of the thimble.

Of course, everyone says the reason candidates go negative is the tactic, slimy as it is, works. That may be true in principle but it works in reverse of what Obama is trying to accomplish. Negative ads turn voters off and propel them to stay home on Election Day.

I know because I met a bunch of them this past weekend, while canvassing in a Catholic middle-class neighborhood outside Philadelphia. Every undecided voter I met told me they were incensed by the negative back-and-forth at a time of economic calamity. Even Harold, a U.S. Marines vet, registered Republican and longtime Philly native, who worries about high crime and high taxes, says he might be swayed to vote for Obama, but resents the fact that the "change" candidate has gone negative, just like every run-of-the-mill politician before him.

In fact, real "change" is staying positive in the face of a fusillade of attacks on your character and campaign. My extended family in upstate Wisconsin informs me they are fed up by the ugly attacks by both campaigns. Though they admit that McCain's broadsides are nastier, Obama's are cringe-worthy as well. If Obama wants to see his slim lead evaporate faster than credit on Wall Street, he should go negative. Why not try to win with your head held high. Don't take the Republican bait. Set an example for future politicians everywhere. Stay positive.