American Studies Herald: Interview with Kirsten Verdel about negative campaigning

BY COEN NIJ BIJVANK

Kirsten Verdel will be one of the key speakers on the upcoming E Pluribus Unum conference on the presidential election of this year. Ms. Verdel was the only foreign staff member at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington during the 2008 Obama campaign. She featured several times on Dutch national television and radio during the campaign and contributed to Vrij Nederland and Het Financieele Dagblad about this subject. She wrote a book about her experiences on the 2008 Obama campaign team. The interview I held with her is a perfect way for you to get to know what Ms. Verdel will be speaking about and to get prepared for her lecture on the conference.

During your time as staff member of the Obama campaign, did you get involved into dirty politics?
‘To many this will sound as a surprise: No, I did not experience any kind of dirty politics. The Democrats did not allow that. It was Obama’s Golden Rule: we were not allowed to participate in such kind of politics and we had to stick to positive messages of Hope and Change. I have a good example of this ban on negativism. At one point in the campaign, we knew Sarah Palin’s (John McCain’s runner-up) daughter was pregnant. She was unmarried and only seventeen years old, so this news had the ability to become a big scandal. It would greatly influence the polls and benefit Obama’s chances. We did not do anything with this news, though. Eventually the news came out, but not via our campaign. Obama’s campaign always stayed positive. I did learn a lot about negative campaigning though. The Republicans were always negative about Obama, and we, as Obama’s campaign team, had to responsd to that.’

You say that the Democrats were not really busy with negative campaigning. Obama’s campaign of this year seems to be really anti-Romney, though.
‘Yes, I think this year’s Democratic campaign started off being somewhat more negative than in 2008. Democrats accuse Romney of being a flip-flopper on a lot of issues. However, that is not a lie. When you compare Romney’s current stand on issues with his stands of some years earlier, you see he flipped on many issues. First he says A, than he says B. So accusing Romney of flip-flopping is negative campaigning, but definitely not dirty politics.’

Will the Obama campaign be able to get the 2008 spirit of hope and change back?
‘I think the spirit will come back. Most negativism comes from Democratic Super PACS (Political Action Committees), who are related to but not the same as the actual Obama campaign. Obama himself will keep the positivism. Again, the main message of the Democrats will be ‘change.’ Obama will argue that his work is not done yet, that he needs more time to fulfill his promises. Romney will be positioned as someone who cannot be trusted. Democrats will claim Romney is part of the 1%, not someone who understands the American people. Criticism on Romney will mostly come not from Obama himself, but rather from other Democrats’ television ads. But Obama will attack Romney on being out of touch with ‘the average, hard working American.’

Do you think the current Republican campaigns are ‘dirtier’ than those of four years ago?
‘Yes I do think so. Negative campaigning did not fit with the old John McCain and the moderate, early front-runner Rudy Giuliani. It would have been strange if they had ridiculed each other. Of course, McCain did get involved into dirty campaigning when he had won the Republican primaries and had to compete with Obama. Initially, though, the 2008 Republican campaigns were much less negative than they are now.’

Many people say Obama failed as a president because he was not able to live up to the expectations he set. What do you think of this?
‘Actually, I think people believe Obama did pretty well on most issues. They understand that Obama had some difficult tasks and that it would become hard for him to solve all issues. Most people agree that Obama did especially well when it comes to foreign policy. Osama Bin Laden was killed under his presidency, and Obama withdrew the United States’ forces out of Iraq. How people feel about Obama depends on how you ask people about him. When you ask how happy someone is with Obama as a president, many people say they are disappointed. However, when you ask about specific issues, people are much more content about Obama’s policy. Also, I think that when Obama’s campaign develops, its tone will become increasingly positive. People who say they are unsatisfied with Obama’s presidency right now, will get excited again. Obama will also focus on what he has accomplished. In the short political documentary ‘The Road We’ve Traveled’ that aired lately, many well-known politicians and celebrities praised Obama for what he has done as president so far. The documentary clearly appeals to positive feelings and emotions. Obama wants to say that there is unfinished work to be done.’

Do you think that Obama’s reelection merely depends on whether or not he can get back the positive spirit?
‘Of course Obama’s reelection also depends on other factors. In 2008, McCain lay ahead of Obama in the polls, just until the economy collapsed. When that happened, Obama’s support became overwhelming. This year, that will not happen. Republicans want Obama out of the White House. They blame Obama for the slow economic recovery. It will be harder for Obama to blame Republicans for the economic situation. Another thing that might cause trouble for Obama, is big money. Since a few years, companies have the right to invest unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns. A lot of Super PACS will support Republicans. The Grand Old Party has much more money in stock than they had in 2008. In the end though, the economy will be the decisive factor. If the slow but steady economic growth continues, I think Obama will be reelected.’

Do you think Iran will cause trouble for Obama?
‘I do not think Iran will be a serious risk. Ahmadinejad uses strong rhetoric, but I do not think he will actually start a war. An attack from Israel’s side on Iran will be unilateral. The US will only assist Israel if or when Iran retaliates.

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