To put the matter succinctly, Democratic candidates are expected to be kind of wimpy.
The Republicans are expected to be the tough-guy party of barrel-chested guys, big macho gestures, invading small foreign countries, vicious smear campaigns, and exuberant lying. Americans expect the Republicans to be arrogant, vicious, and dishonest.
Expectatations for the GOP smear campaign against the Democratic nominee for president have been building for at least two years. And people will be disappointed if the Republicans don't deliver. It's almost as if voters now want the Republicans to be the party of taboo-breaking nastiness and expect them to play that role.
To the contrary, the Democrats are expected to be the good-guy party--the party that acts reasonably, follows the rules, cares about diversity, shows good will toward everyone, and works for "peace, justice and the American way."
And that's what Barack Obama is supposed to be.
And Obama knows it.
At the beginning of the Democratic primaries, he was extremely effective at painting himself as the really "good" guy. It was Obama who was eloquent, inspirational, reaching out across all the lines that divide American society while Hillary was tainted by the "baggage" of the 90's.
Did Hillary get that baggage by engaging in the same kind of attack-dog partisanship as DeLay and Gingrich.
She got it by defending the Clinton administration, affirmative action, and abortion rights against the extremely aggressive partisanship of the Republicans.
But now it's Obama's turn to try breaking out of the Democratic "good guy," wimp box.
Today at a fund-raiser in my favorite city of Philadelphia, Obama vowed not to back down from the Republican smear machine:
What's interesting about this comment is that the "knife/gun" dichotomy has gang connotations that go all the way back to the "West Side Story" days of the forties and fifties. Where the Republicans employ military analogies and refer to theorists like Von Klausewitz and Sun Tzu, Obama is flashing a little street aggression that's mostly associated with black and hispanics. Even though there are millions of white brawlers out there (like my dad come to think of it), Obama is posing his willingness to fight in a particularly "black" mode.
"If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun," Obama said at a fundraiser in Philadelphia Friday, according to pool reports.
"We don't have a choice but to win," Obama said, joking that he has heard "folks in Philly like a good brawl. I've seen Eagles games."
We'll see how it plays. Obama is committed to the politics of reaching out, but he's also shown that he's a tough counter-puncher when other people attack.
The question is whether the media and the electorate will accept that from a Democrat.