Is this the nastiest presidential campaign ever? That’s a toughie. Past campaigns have set the bar so low that, to quote a senior advisor to Mitt Romney, “I don’t think a world champion limbo dancer could get any lower.”
Actually the advisor Eric Fehrnstrom was only describing President Barack Obama’s campaign. But it takes two to tangle. Besides, there’s certainly nothing new in politics about taking low blows on the way to higher ground.
That’s why I’m skeptical of Team Romney’s finger-wagging over Obama’s alleged loss of the high-minded ideals of his 2008 campaign. Obama never promised to be a patsy. That’s not, as an old saying goes, the Chicago way.
Fehrnstrom was complaining about a pro-Obama ad produced by Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, that, I agree, deserves to be criticized. It tries to blame Romney for the death of a woman whose husband lost his job and health insurance after a Bain Capital takeover. That’s a stretch because, among other inconvenient facts, Romney was not connected to the closing.
Yet what’s significant about these dust-ups is the Obama campaign’s reaction: no apologies. Instead, campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith jabbed the Romney campaign’s “faux outrage” as “extremely hollow.” She went on to criticize the Romney campaign for questioning whether the president understands what it is to be American, attacking his patriotism and questioning his support of free enterprise.
After years of getting beat up by the Grand Old Party’s Machiavellian operatives like Karl Rove and the late Lee Atwater, Democrats appear to be getting tough.
You could hear that after Vice President Joe Biden gave Team Romney something new to complain about: a quip colorized with a little Ebonics in which he chastised Romney’s softness on bank regulation: “He said in the first 100 days he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules,” Biden orated to the crowd. “Unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
The multiracial audience laughed and Republicans pounced. Some accused Biden of playing the race card. Romney called Obama a “disgrace” who should “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.”
Yet Biden would only concede that he meant to say “shackles,” not “chains,” because he was actually quoting recent Republican rhetoric. Indeed, in a Dec. 19, 2011, USA Today op-ed, Romney himself called on Americans to “remove the shackles of government” and “become the Opportunity Society that we once were.” Yes, that shackles metaphor does get around.
In fact, I, for one, wish that the Romney campaign were as deeply concerned about the racial implications of their recent welfare ads. They accuse Obama of ending work requirements for welfare recipients. He didn’t. Yet political history shows “welfare” to be more racially loaded in politics than “shackles” or “y’all.”
And what’s up with Romney’s accusation that Obama of “robbed” or “raided” Medicare of $700 billion “to pay for Obamacare?” It would be more accurate to say the administration is “slowing the growth” of Medicare spending by $700 billion over the next decade. If that’s so bad, Romney might ask, why did his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, sensibly include the same $700 billion estimate in his own proposed budget?
But don’t hold your breath waiting for campaigns to become more gentle or thoughtful. Everyone complains about attack ads, it seems, but they must work or campaigns would stop producing them.
That’s especially true in this, the year of the Incredible Shrinking Undecided Voter. Most voters have made up their minds, leaving a narrower-than-ever sliver of undecideds for campaign operatives to “educate” with their ads.
A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found the remaining undecided may be as few as 3 percent, compared to 12 percent in late July 2008. A Pew survey found 5 percent undecided, down by half from four years ago. The fighting gets more vicious when the number of still-persuadable voters shrinks that small.
It might be cheaper, some have suggested, for the campaigns to simply hand a large check to each of the remaining undecideds in battleground states and give the rest of us a rest. That’s got my vote.
But, again, don’t hold your breath. Just hold your nose.