Where do nice guys finish? Watch James Smith to find out

James greet

James Smith greets supporters in Lancaster on the day of the announcement that Mandy Powers Norrell would be his running mate.

I appreciate my friend E.J. Dionne, who is also a nice guy, bringing this to my attention:

It’s the tale of how a little old lady who served as food critic for a newspaper in flyover land was lampooned by the “sophisticates” on the coasts because she unabashedly gave a rave review to an Olive Garden… then was defended by the late Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain wrote of the then–88-year-old Marilyn Hagerty of Grand Forks:

“She is never mean — even when circumstances would clearly excuse a sharp elbow, a cruel remark,” he wrote. “In fact, watching Marilyn struggle to find something nice to say about a place she clearly loathes is part of the fun. She is, unfailingly, a good neighbor and good citizen first — and entertainer second.”

Bourdain added that the book “kills snark dead.”

“This is a straightforward account of what people have been eating — still ARE eating — in much of America,” he wrote. “As related by a kind, good-hearted reporter looking to pass along as much useful information as she can — while hurting no one.”

So you can see how the “snarkologists” would give her unmitigated hell. How dare she be a genuinely nice person?

Which brings me to James Smith.

This past week, the three candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor or South Carolina had their final “debate” — an occasion for Phil Noble and Marguerite Willis to snarl, slash and attack James Smith in their desperation (which continues to puzzle me) to tear down the only member of their party who has the slightest prayer of winning the election in the fall.

A number of people — some of them the sort who were just then starting to focus on the race (which is ominous) — thought Smith didn’t come out of the debate well — his opponents kept scoring hits on him, and he failed to deflect the hits and didn’t fight back. (Doug hates that kind of thing. Possibly others do as well.)

It didn’t strike me that way, but then I know James, and I knew that his opponents were making innocent things out to be scandalous. For instance, he has been friends with Rick Quinn, and he was Alan Wilson’s attorney at one point. These are both things that I’ve written about approvingly here in the past, because it shows the kind of guy James is — someone who doesn’t dismiss people because they belong to another political party. You know, exactly the quality you need in a Democrat who wants to get anything done as governor, seeing as how the GOP dominates the Legislature.

His opponents were doing this because with the kind of blind partisans who might (if misled sufficiently) choose them over Smith, it is a prima facie sin to be friends with Republicans. At this point, the snarlers would protest that the sin was the taint of scandal attaching to Quinn and Wilson — but the evidence of his association is from a time years before even the slightest hint of scandal wafted in their direction.

So what’s he going to say? Protest that he was friendly with them then, but not now? An opportunist would leap at the chance to do so. But that’s not James Smith.

James Smith is the kind of guy who offers nothing but positive reasons why he wants to be governor and would make a good one. He’s not interested in slashing out at anyone, or tossing anyone to the wolves.

He could, if he possessed a different sort of character. There are plenty of things he could say about the two spoilers (who will never be anything more) attacking him. I’m picturing, for instance, a pretty devastating ad with one Democrat after another stating clearly precisely what they think of Phil Noble, based on their dealings with him.

As for Marguerite Willis, I can think of a number of ways he could undermine her, but this one would do: He could, for instance, ask her to explain why she said, in their first debate back in the winter, that workers should not have the right to organize into unions. While running for the Democratic nomination, mind. It stunned me at the time (I’m no great fan of unions, but surely people have the right to join them), but the amazing thing is that no one has asked this corporate lawyer to explain that answer — not then, not now.

Unless I’ve missed it. If this has happened, I’d appreciate a link.

Can you imagine what Ms. Willis or Noble, who attack him without letup because the NRA doesn’t hate him, would be doing with such an advantage?

But Smith does not. Because he’s just not interested in doing that.

I imagine that in the fall, James will have some critical things to say about his Republican opponent — because then, there will be substantive differences on policy to discuss. But he’s not interested in playing a gotcha game to get his party’s nomination.

Which raises the question — do nice guys finish last, or does a guy who’s only interested in presenting the positives about himself, and not looking for ways to attack his opponents, have a chance in today’s poisonous political atmosphere?

To find out, watch James Smith on Tuesday.

43 thoughts on “Where do nice guys finish? Watch James Smith to find out

  1. Doug Ross

    Plenty of nice guys win. Jimmy Carter is at the pinnacle of the nice guy list. Ron and Rand Paul are nice guys. Mitt Romney was a nice guy who won elections. Obama is a nice guy.

    The key is bringing something more than nice to the table. Smith is having a tough time gaining traction (a recent poll said 50% of voters couldn’t even name a candidate in the Democratic primary) because he hasn’t done or said anything interesting. His campaign is run like he’s an incumbent who is unopposed. It’s really weird that he has played it safe in a year when the Democrats actually have a chance to win. I keep waiting for something that might energize voters… And then all I see is a repeat of the Sheheen playbook. That playbook is a loser in this state.

    I’m skeptical that a nice guy governor will have any success taking on a legislature that is never nice.

    1. Richard

      Do you think North Dakota politicians play the “nice guy” routine just because some old lady food critic does? You’re comparing career politicians to someone who has nothing to do but go to lunch and write about enjoying having a choice of white, wheat and texas for toast. If you’ve ever been to ND, you know that’s the extent of the choices.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Plenty of nice guys win. Jimmy Carter is at the pinnacle of the nice guy list.”

      Jimmy is evidence that nice guys WON, once upon a time. Just as once upon a time no one would have given the sweet old lady a hard time for liking Olive Garden.

      The shift began, gradually, in about 1982. That was the year that the negative advertising really caught on — I’ve written about covering the campaign in which Robin Beard went so negative against Jim Sasser in Tennessee, something that made national news at the time (back when “making national news” meant something, before you had the 24-hour beast to feed, which today makes all news “national”). About that time, Lee Atwater was building his rep…

      From then on, it has changed gradually. Trump, of course, is probably the most negative (about everything) person ever to win a national election. Now we have this weird spectacle in the Democratic primary for governor, with two people who are NOTHING but negative, and in fact MUST know they would have no chance in a general election.

      You don’t seen Democrats do that sort of thing in SC. They can’t afford to claw at each other this way; they have far too much trouble winning elections even when unified.

      Obama has a LOT going for him aside from being “nice.” He has tremendous charisma, more than anyone since JFK (with Clinton and Reagan trailing those two). Romney is a nice guy without charisma, and you see what that’s done for him.

      You’ll have to explain the Pauls. I grant they’re nice guys, but the rest of it is just so alien to me that you can surely explain it far better than I…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          You mean before we’d won our independence, before the Constitution?

          I’m sorry you can’t remember when it was different.

          There used to be a standard bit of advice for candidates: Don’t go negative. The thinking, as I recall, was that it would always reflect badly on the person who throws the mud. And generally, folks followed that advice — that’s part of what made the “Daisy” ad so devastating in 1964; it was unusual.

          That was still largely in effect at the start of my career. I saw the change happen…

          1. Doug Ross

            Re-read Chernow’s Hamilton. Hamilton and Jefferson engaged in dirty politics from the earliest days of the U.S. There has never been a time when a political campaign didn’t include rumors and dirty tricks. Only difference now is its easier to do with all the media options. Sending out hate mailers was expensive in the carrier pigeon days.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yes, the 1800 campaign was one of the nastiest in our history. Of course, it mattered little because either one who won, we’d have had a great president.

              And it was Hamilton and Madison more than Adams or Jefferson. Which was tragic. Hamilton and Madison understood the risk of partisanship, but they both quickly turned into hardball partisans.

              I guess a politician doesn’t even know himself until he finds himself in a tough fight…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Anyway, guys, you’re reaching back awfully far to argue with my point.

                I’m writing from my own experience, and even though I’ve read extensively about it, I wasn’t around for the 1800 election. (By the way, if I had been, I’d have voted for Adams.)

                I was referring to a process I watched happen.

                And even those of you who are younger than I should be able to see that the tone of politics is worse than 10 years ago, which was worse than 10 years before that. This is not a controversial statement I’m making.

                For instance… when’s the last time you saw DEMOCRATS savage another Democrat in a primary in South Carolina?

                You’ll probably have to go back to 1974, when Pug Ravenel called the Democratically controlled State House a “den of thieves.” But that’s not quite the same thing, since in those days pretty much everybody was a Democrat, and that was a time of tremendous turmoil in the party, between the Old Guard and the Young Turks who were being swept into office by single-member districts…

                1. C J Watson

                  1994 Nick Theodore vs Joe Riley. Nick went negative on Joe. David Beasley won. Joe could have beaten Beasley.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Joe would have crushed Beasley.

                    Yeah, Nick went “negative,” but it was pretty lame.

                    Joe lost more because he didn’t campaign the way he should before the runoff. Joe was busy being the best mayor in America. Nick had a job with no duties (when not wielding the gavel during the Senate sessions) and had done nothing but campaign for 8 years.

                    I think Joe was kind of shocked that he didn’t win outright, and then he finally ran fairly hard for those two weeks. But he lost by less than one vote per precinct. It was a heartbreaker. In fact, in my time covering politics in SC, it was THE heartbreaker — the biggest missed opportunity for South Carolina in all these years. Joe would have been an awesome governor…

                2. Doug Ross

                  From Wikipedia on Negative Campaigning
                  Notable examples
                  United States

                  1828: The Coffin Handbills used by supporters of John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential campaign. Jackson’s mother was called a prostitute, and his wife an adulteress.
                  1884: Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion Comment by Reverend Samuel Burchard in the 1884 presidential election.
                  1936: The first radio advertising using negative campaigning came from the Republican Party in 1936.[11]
                  1964: The Daisy ad used by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in the United States presidential election, 1964.
                  1968: The “Convention Ad” run by Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
                  1988: Willie Horton and Revolving Door ads used by in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis.
                  1992: The Chicken George attack on George H W Bush where persons dressed as chickens appeared at his events to protest his avoiding debates.
                  1993: “Harry and Louise” ads attacking President Bill Clinton’s health-care reform proposals.
                  “Black baby of John McCain” slur in the George W. Bush primary campaign.
                  2004: Attacks against George W. Bush’s military record in the 2004 presidential election, and attacks against John Kerry’s Vietnam service record by some Navy Swift Boat veterans of the Vietnam War.
                  2005: Jerry Kilgore’s pro-death penalty attack ad against his opponent, Tim Kaine, in the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial campaign. The ad, particularly its invocation of Hitler, contributed to Kilgore’s defeat by Kaine.
                  2008: Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad questioning the crisis management abilities of her opponent, Barack Obama.[12]
                  2008: Elizabeth Dole’s ad against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in her 2008 Senate re-election campaign, where Hagan was said to be “Godless”. The ad backfired, as it sharply reduced support for Dole.[13] Dole was defeated by Hagan in the election.
                  2014: Justin Amash was smeared as “Al-Qaeda’s best friend in Congress” by his primary opponent Brian Ellis.[14]

                  Nothing new here. Just the internet making it easier.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Thanks, Doug.

                    I say what I say based on what should be obvious to every single person who’s been alive for the last 50 years or so. It’s not a controversial observation to note that things have gotten nastier, election cycle after election cycle, over the last three decades or so. Yes, you can always, always, ALWAYS find instances in which something negative happened in politics. Go to the sunniest campaign ever, and you’ll find an example somewhere, and probably quite few. That’s life. (The 19th century featured particularly lurid political invective, much of it in the newspapers of the day. For a hilarious take on that from Mark Twain, read “Journalism in Tennessee” — which I particularly enjoyed because I was a Tennessee journalist when I read it.)

                    For about the thousandth time, this comes from my talking about the forest, and you (or Bud) saying that what I say about the forest isn’t TRUE because that tree and that one and that one over there!

                    I don’t know what your Myers-Briggs type is (you may have told me and I forgot), but this seems to be an N-vs.-S conflict. In my experience, those are pretty much irreconcilable. The most we can hope for is to be tolerant of each other….

                3. bud

                  Joseph McCarthy really was a paragon of high-minded statesmanship. Spirit Agnew didn’t really admonish the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Storm Thurmond endorsed the “big tent” of racial inclusion. Lyndon Johnson didn’t refer to people as “bung holes”. Nixon’s plumbers were just planting Christmas cards at the DNC. Sorry Brad. Politics has always been nasty.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Again, trees — trees who stood out from the forest, and whose names you learned from history, because they stood out.

                    Of course, Strom doesn’t fit in that group. He was just being a segregationist when all white Southern politicians were segregationists. Then, he wasn’t…

      1. Doug Ross

        Nice guys can win even now. Wouldn’t you put Lindsey Graham in that category? And nice women win all the time.

        The Paul’s are very decent people. No hint of scandal. Romney won as a governor, came closer for President than not so nice guy McCain.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’d put Lindsey in the same category as McCain. So if you don’t think McCain is a nice guy…

          Actually, you’re the one who faults McCain for not counterpunching, for being a victim rather than a perpetrator of negative campaigning, in 1980.

          He’s a deeply fair-minded man. Remember the way he called down his own supporters for being so negative about Obama…

          1. Doug Ross

            Not counter punching isn’t about being nice. He was playing politics. I doubt very few people would think of the word “nice” if asked to describe McCain. He’s a tough guy, a rough guy… hardly nice.

            Rand Paul went back hard against Trump when Trump attacked him.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              He IS a tough guy, and a guy with a temper. But one of the things he’s well-known for is, over the last 30 years or so (his post-hothead Fighter Jock days), doing an excellent job of controlling himself and being civil to people who disagree with him.

              If you watch him closely, you can see the effort he’s making. I appreciate that in a tough guy…

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  If you’re saying Jimmy “I’ll whip his ass” Carter had to work at being nice, there’s truth to that. The whole “smiling peanut farmer” was a carefully cultivated image. But he was (and is) still basically a good man striving to live out the Gospel…

  2. Harry Harris

    Once the Republican pander-fest is over and we find out who their candidate will be, the race will likely sharpen. I believe Smith will win on the Democratic side. If he wins, I do not expect him to engage in the likely negative and name-calling campaign almost surely to come from the other side except to point out huge policy mistakes made by Republicans governing SC. I expect the health coverage hole resulting from Haley’s ACA sham (remember the “better ideas” she promised?) will be highlighted. Closed rural hospitals and jobs forgone by leaving out the Medicare expansion which didn’t even allow those shut out to get subsidies under the exchange should be emphasized. Problems exacerbating school morale and contributing to a growing teacher shortage reflect the pay, retirement, and health care betrayals that Republican priorities have produced. The sorry state of SC roads is not only a Sanford/Haley legacy, but should be a big pie in the face of McMaster after his sandbagging attempt at fixes.

    1. Doug Ross

      I’m not voting Republican but I can already see what their response will be to Smith: he wants to raise your taxes. Everything he wants costs money and that has to come from somewhere. He’s also going to have an uphill battle trying to convince the majority of South Carolinians that things are not going well in the state. The economy is cooking along at a high level unlikely to drop by November.

      Smith’s best shot is to tie McMaster to Quinn and Trump. He’ll have a harder time against Templeton or Warren because they won’t be afraid to go negative until Smith responds. They just have to keep him at the Sheheen levels to breeze to victory.

        1. Doug Ross

          First, that is an issue that isn’t going to win any crossover Republican voters. Second, what is the net cost of those programs and how will Smith pay for them? Medicaid expansion isn’t free.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I didn’t say it would win crossover votes. I said “bless him,” because it’s the right thing to do.

            And Medicaid expansion is 90 percent free to the state. The feds pay the rest.

            If we’d done it at first, it would have been 100 percent free for three years. I don’t know how that would work at this late date. Maybe it would go straight to the 90 percent federal/10 percent state formula…

            Basically, it was insane for the state to turn it down. It was all about hating that awful Obama person…

            1. Doug Ross

              Ok, so Smith should tell us how much it will cost and how he will pay for it. It’s got to be millions of dollars… what taxes will he raise or what other spending will he cut to pay for it?

              He’s good on the feel good side of liberal political issues. Now let’s see how he is on the conservative side of actually paying for it.

              Sheheen 3.0 is what I am seeing. All about the soft stuff… pie in the sky — we can do everything for everyone !!! That won’t win here.

              1. Doug Ross

                And if we can’t talk about Hillary any more, surely we have to stop talking about the past with Haley. Move on! You want Medicaid expansion, tell us what it will cost.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Since you care, why don’t you go look it up? And while you’re doing that, check with the SC Hospital Association about the economic gains, in healthcare jobs and other effects, of Medicaid expansion. Just so you have the whole picture. I don’t need those numbers to know the right thing to do. Since you do, I leave it in your hands.

                  Do you realize how funny you sound sometimes, Doug? You blast a candidate for not running on things that make him MORE electable… but then you insist that candidates stress only the negatives (from your perspective) about policy proposals. You don’t want him to say, “We’re passing up the chance to cover thousands of uncovered South Carolinians at minimal cost.” You want him to say, “Y’all, I wanna do something that’ll cost millions and millions of dollars!”

                  So which is it? Do you think candidates should try harder to be electable, or do you want them to do around with a “DON’T VOTE FOR ME!” sign on their backs…

                  Sounds like you want them to run the way I sell ads on my blog: “Uh, you don’t wanna buy an ad, do ya? Thought not…”

                  Or is it that you’re just going to find fault no matter what they do?

              2. Harry Harris

                We all are paying for it already. Uncompensated care costs are shifted to the other users, and the cost of care for those who don’t get care early enough because of no insurance or money has been shown to multiply. ER care for sick people who don’t have the means or insurance to go to a fast ER practitioner inflates hospital bills and insurance rates for the rest of us. There is no free stuff, only wise cost containment.
                Brad is quite right. Turning down a 90% match for health care for low income workers is just leaving money on the table because of doctrinaire stubbornness and political pandering.

                1. Richard

                  So do you believe if we had taken the 90% match that ER costs would have been reduced by a noticeable amount? I seriously doubt they would have dropped at all. So we’d still be paying the current ER rates plus taxpayers would be tagged for the 10% portion. What ballpark dollar amount are we talking? I’m guessing it’s in the 8-digit range.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Yep. (I’m answering your initial question, “So do you believe if we had taken the 90% match that ER costs would have been reduced by a noticeable amount?”)

  3. Karen Pearson

    I think the majority of people would rather see a fight than a debate. Too many revel in an exchange of vitriol, and tend to vote for the most vicious person rather than the one who talks about his/her plans to govern.

    1. Bob Amundson

      I agree, and that is sad. The research is clear – minds don’t change when attacked, or told you are wrong. The key is to understand, then express your thinking. That strategy has a much higher success rate!

  4. Barry

    Doug is right that Smith will have to come up with some bold proposals that are easily understood to have a chance at winning. A reserved campaign will result in a clear loss.

    Yes, taking a stance on medical marijuana as a conservative approach would be a good start if he wins the primary. Make the Republican nominee campaign against it.

    He should also propose LOWERING the state income tax to match North Carolina’s while at the same time doing away with corporate tax breaks. If it doesn’t balance, ignore it and swear on the good book that it will spur economic development and will be a money maker for the state in the long run. Phrase it as a nod to the common man against big businesses like SCANA who are destroying regular ”hard working” South Carolina citizens and their paychecks.

    Propose a “Faith and Family” initiative that promotes fatherhood and “family values.” Talk it to death. Talk about it all the time and repeat the phrase “faith and family” in every commercial and campaign. Heck, tell people that you considered legally ch aging your name to James “Faith and Familyl Smith. Don’t need to propose specifics. Avoid specifics at all costs. Talk about it in general terms and remind everyone every single day it’s time to get back to strengthening the family in South Carolina.

    Propose the death penalty for anyone that discharges a gun on school property, or in a bar.

    Propose a law that outlaws staying seated for the national anthem at any sporting event in South Carolina that is even partially funded by tax dollars. It won’t pass and would be illegal, but who cares. It sounds good to plenty of South Carolina citizens. This would also allow him a chance to remind everyone that he didn’t volunteer for Afghanistan so that Dockers wearing Yankees could sit during the national anthem at a South Carolina sporting event.

    Propose a state funded “bible camp” for juvenile delinquents that are first time offenders. When told this is unconstitutional, reply that if the constitution prevents the Bible camp, it’s time for a new amendment to the constitution – then add something about how there are too many amendments anyway and getting rid of a few would be a good idea to make room for the Bible camp idea.

    1. Richard

      “Propose the death penalty for anyone that discharges a gun on school property, or in a bar.”

      So you’re limiting it to specific locations? What about church? What about at moving vehicles? What about in a place of business?

    2. Richard

      “so that Dockers wearing Yankees could sit during the national anthem at a South Carolina sporting event. ”

      From what I’ve seen, they don’t appear to be Docker wearing Yankees.

      1. Barry

        Yes, but it might just be nutty enough for South Carolina to elect him.

        Doug is correct that a typical campaign won’t result in a win for Smith. I wish it would but it won’t.

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