Something new is going on in the 2008 presidential primaries. Call it an outbreak of nice.
In past contests, attacks and negatives played a key role in the primaries. Voting records, lists of campaign contributors and issue differences all highlighted the debate among the candidates as they vied for their party's nomination. This year, though, the gloves never seem to come off.
It was striking, in last week's primary debates, how courteously and gently the candidates dealt with one another. Even when former Sen. John Edwards criticized Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in Democratic debate for not taking the lead in opposing the Iraq War, he did so without mentioning names. When Obama criticized Edwards' vote for the war in 2002 and said that he was "41/2 years late in opposing the war," pollster Frank Luntz noted that the focus group he had watching the debate turned sour at the first note of criticism.
In his post-debate analysis for Fox News, Luntz reminded viewers of the 11th commandment that used to dominate Republican primaries: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. He said that his focus groups indicated that this rule is now dominant in both parties.
Why? Our best guess: The gulf between the two parties has so widened and the partisan bitterness it engenders so increased, voters are be massively turned off when one member of their party criticizes another - even when they are facing off for the presidential nomination.
The voters seem to be saying: Save your criticism for the other party - don't weaken one of our own by going after him (or her).
The result of this newfound gentility has been a remarkably static race in which the front- runners - Clinton and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani - have led since the first of the year, usually by comfortable margins.
Indeed, the ranking of the candidates has not changed since January. In the Democratic contest it's Hillary first, Obama second and Edwards third; among Republicans, it's Rudy, Sen. John McCain and then former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Only the possible entrance of Fred Thompson or (less likely) Al Gore seems to have any chance of changing the order.
But how can you pass the front-runner if you can't attack her (or him)? This strategic conundrum seems to have flummoxed the challengers in each party.
If it's not fair game for Hillary's opponents to cite her massive inconsistencies on funding the war in Iraq or on mandating troop withdrawals - or for Rudy's adversaries to go after him on social issues or on his business dealings - then how can the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates advance?
This gentility, enforced by voter tastes rather than by any party rules, makes it more likely that candidates who haven't really been vetted by harsh contests to win the nomination will prevail and go against one another in the general election. As a result, they may be unusually vulnerable - and that weakness may not be discovered until it is too late.
Some challengers have tried to throw negatives obliquely by differentiating themselves over key issues, as Edwards tried to do with Clinton over the war and the rest of the GOP field does with Giuliani over abortion. But these mannerly disagreements are a far cry from the rough-and-tumble negative campaigning of past primary contests.
The result of these new rules may be that the primaries lack contrast and vigor and that the nominees are preordained all along, to the detriment of the process.