When Good News Is Bad News

The politics of mixed emotions.

It’s a familiar human predicament. Dear old Aunt Maude—dear, rich old Aunt Maude—has staged a remarkable recovery. The doctors say she could live another 30 years. You are delighted, of course. And yet you can’t help thinking about the money.

The Democratic presidential candidates woke up Sunday morning to learn that U.S. forces had captured Saddam Hussein. O joy! O joy! O ****! You cannot blame them for having mixed emotions. How long do you suppose each one spent relishing the good news for the world before dwelling on the bad news for their own political futures? And how long did President Bush spend savoring the boon for Iraqis before he started to savor the boon for his re-election campaign? It’s obviously less of a challenge, though, to be and/or appear sincere when good news for the world is good news for you personally.

How to deal with mixed emotions is a bigger challenge to politicians than to the rest of us for a couple of reasons. One is that being and/or appearing concerned for the greater good is a basic qualification for their jobs. You cannot win an election if the voters suspect that you are wishing them ill, gleeful when bad things happen, and disappointed when things turn out well. Even admitting to mixed feelings—which are only human—would kill your ambitions. And yet almost any development in the news during an election campaign creates a similar dilemma for everyone except the incumbent.

It’s the Law of Mixed Emotions: If you’re the challenger, what’s good for the voters is bad for you, and what’s bad for the voters is good for you. When the stock market goes down, it buoys you up. When the market goes up, it brings you down. Or at least part of you must feel this way. There may be politicians so pure of heart that such cynical thoughts never cross their minds. But I certainly would not want anyone so wonderful representing me. Nor would I trust such an angel to protect my interests in this cold world.

So if you’re a politician, how should you deal with good news that’s bad news? Howard Dean’s comments this week offer both a negative and a positive case study. He broke the most obvious rule: Pretend, at least, that you’re enjoying the party. Don’t stint or quibble. It may well be true, as Dean said, that capturing Saddam doesn’t make America any safer than if he’d been left cowering in his spider hole for the next 50 years. The Bush administration certainly had given us the impression until this week that it believed the important thing was toppling him from power, not running him physically into the ground. But that’s just cheap irony. Save it for the pundits. To be presidential, look gracious.

On the other hand, Dean won points in my book for another bit of straight talk. After calling Saddam’s capture “a great day” for the military, for Iraqis, and for Americans generally, he added that it was “frankly, a great day for the administration.” This is a rare example of a politician saying “frankly” and then saying something actually frank. It comes close to admitting the obvious: that this development helps Bush’s chance of winning next year’s election and therefore hurts Dean’s.

It’s a real mystery why politicians find it so hard to admit the obvious about the horse-race aspects of politics. No doubt it requires a dose of blind optimism to be a politician in the first place. Even Dennis Kucinich must think he has a 1-in-10,000 chance of becoming president, when his chance is actually much smaller. But there is also an annoying convention that you must pretend to a confidence you don’t feel. Anyone who doesn’t realize that this week’s news has been a big boost for Bush’s re-election is too stupid or blinded to be elected president. Yet the press will punish any candidate who says so, possibly because if the candidates take up stating the obvious, they’re stealing our material. The pols need to be coy and evasive so that we can tell it to you straight.

Virtually every Democratic candidate, including Dean, followed another puzzling convention of American politics by saying that the capture of Saddam was a reason, or at least an occasion, to draw in other nations. Their most common complaint about the war has been that it isn’t “multilateral.” It’s hard to see how this argument is affected one way or another by finding Saddam in a hole. (Well, this macho triumph by George W. seems to have cowed the Europeans and made them more cooperative—but that presumably was not the point his opponents were trying to make.)

Politicians reacting to a surprise in the news are always declaring that the unexpected development makes them believe even more deeply in the wisdom and urgency of whatever they have been saying all along. Bush inherited huge surpluses, and he called for a tax cut. Now there are huge deficits, and he calls for a tax cut.

Even when the cause-and-effect connection isn’t totally implausible, a politician taking this line usually looks silly. If you had asked John Kerry a week ago whether it was even possible for him to feel more strongly than he already did about the need for a more “globalized” approach to the situation in Iraq, he probably would have said it isn’t possible. He felt very, very, very strongly about it last week. Now we are supposed to believe that he feels very, very, very, very strongly. Is there any development that could make him feel only very, very strongly—or even make him change his mind?

Not having to deal with the problems of mixed emotions is another reason it was a good week for President Bush. It’s a natural advantage of incumbency. But no one starts out as an incumbent.