IT DEPENDS on the meaning of negative.
Asking Hillary Clinton to release her tax returns isn't dirty politics. That line of inquiry doesn't turn Barack Obama into Ken Starr, as the Clinton campaign charges.
However, a published comment from a senior Obama adviser referring to Clinton as "a monster" dips into the dark side, best avoided by a campaign rooted in goodness and light. The adviser, Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard University, resigned for the disparaging remark she made to a Scottish newspaper.
Obama set high standards in a campaign that promises a different kind of politics. Now he must strike a balance between offense and defense, high road and low, without turning off voters attracted to his message in the first place.
But, practicing the politics of hope doesn't mean a candidate can't also practice the politics of compare and contrast. A fight for a presidential nomination isn't a day at the beach - nor is it a Massachusetts governor's race.
Governor Deval Patrick, Obama's friend and supporter, took the high road during his showdown with Republican Kerry Healey and he believes Obama should, too. "What he won't do and what he shouldn't do, is get down in the muck with his challenger," said Patrick, during his monthly visit with WTKK radio hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan.
"In order for him to keep faith, yes, he has to defend himself, but he can't be the same-old, same-old," Patrick said.
During the 2006 governor's race, Healey used a Clinton-like, kitchen sink strategy against Patrick. She blasted her Democratic rival for his advocacy on behalf of convicted rapist Benjamin LaGuer, and sent campaign volunteers in prison-style orange jumpsuits to Patrick's home and to that of his campaign manager. She launched a controversial TV ad showing a white woman walking alone in a dark parking garage, and then cut to Patrick describing LaGuer as "eloquent." A story was leaked to the press outing Patrick's brother-in-law as a convicted sex offender.
Some political advisers begged Patrick to go negative, but he refused. He gambled that Massachusetts voters yearned for the new style of politics that he promised and won. However, Patrick made that strategic decision from the comfort of the double-digit lead he always held over Healey, in a state that heavily favors Democrats.
Doug Rubin, a Patrick campaign adviser who is now the governor's chief of staff, said the Obama campaign's next step is critical. "People are looking to see how Barack responds," he said. "If he responds in a way that is consistent with what he said he stood for, he'll be successful in the end. He should engage her on the issues, but not go negative."
Right now, Obama doesn't have a negativity problem, as much as a discipline problem. Campaign aides gone wild will hurt Obama more than a campaign strategy that fairly compares and contrasts his style and issues to Clinton's.
When it comes to campaigns, Clinton's experience is unassailable. Bill and Hillary Clinton have seen it all. When they see vulnerability in a rival they know how to exploit it. That's what happened to Obama over the past week.
First, the Clinton campaign capitalized on a Canadian television report that Austan Goolsbee, Obama's top economic policy adviser, told Canadian officials that the candidate's public pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement was "more about political positioning." Obama first denied the report, but was then faced with a memo that detailed the meeting between Goolsbee and Canadian officials. The NAFTA controversy hurt him in Ohio.
Then, The Scotsman quoted Power, a senior foreign policy aide to Obama, as saying of Clinton, "She is a monster, too - that is off the record - she is stooping to anything." Power apologized, but the Clinton campaign called for her resignation.
Meanwhile, reasonable people can disagree on the meaning of negative. But criticizing Clinton for her failure to release her income tax returns doesn't seem as negative or as ham-handed as the Clinton campaign's response.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson compared Obama to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor who investigated the real estate dealings known as Whitewater. The Starr investigation expanded to include the death of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster and Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Ultimately, Starr's investigation led to Bill Clinton's impeachment.
Why would Hillary Clinton want to refresh voter memories about that? Now that's really negative.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.