So far, the presidential-election campaign has moderately exceeded even very high expectations of banality and nastiness. It is like a three-legged race between the head of a failed administration (except in continuing to combat terrorism), who is smearing his opponent because the president can’t run on his record; and a challenger who is a conviction-free zone and will leave everything to dynamic executive decision-making when he actually holds the office, but seems to have no idea of the level of personal disclosure that getting there requires.
The Obama campaign manager, David Axelrod, the wrench-wielding alumnus of the Chicago School of boiler-room politics, tipped the Democrats’ hand and handbook by saying a couple of weeks ago that it would be easier to smear Romney than Obama because the incumbent is better known. The Democrats have spent $100 million from their campaign war chest in a preemptive strike against Romney in television ads blasting him as a job outsourcer, tax evader, liar, low speculator cavorting with thieves, and, in the words of one particularly robust campaign official, a felon. The president has denounced large Romney contributors by name as disreputable, and at least one has suddenly been subjected to a tax audit. We’re still only in July. What levels of mudslinging the Obama campaign may have excavated three months from now escapes my imagination.
As for the Romney campaign, it has returned fire fairly well on some of Obama’s economic failures, has hit hard in some foreign-policy areas, especially the Middle East, and has completed the candidate’s 180-degree turn on Obamacare. (When Romney was booed at the NAACP for advocating repeal of Obamacare, former speaker Pelosi descended to the occasion by accusing him of courting brickbats from an African-American audience to impress white racists.) But Romney has been treading deep water opposite the Obama smear campaign, and has clung to a waterlogged life preserver in not fully revealing his income-tax returns. This has enabled the Obamaites, including the president himself (who seems now to define his great office in terms of clinging to the furniture in it), to incite in the mainly docile national media a caricature of Romney as a tax-dodging asset-stripper. Of course, Romney has released one year of tax returns, and will release another, but it does seem like pulling teeth to a largely cash-strapped and frightened electorate. Romney hasn’t fallen on his sword, as honorable men did in olden time; he has offered the hilt to his opponents and is startled by the slashing and puncturing thrusts of Axelrod and his fellow assailants.
The seekers of an even playing field, even of a game played on all fours in the gutter, will assume that Romney is biding his time before pointing out that Mr. Obama has strayed even farther from past positions than he has himself. Obama was against gay marriage but is now for it. As a candidate, he was an outspoken opponent of the individual mandate, which is now the core of his health-care reform. He promised to review entitlements and has failed to do so, and made completely unfulfilled promises for his obscenely gargantuan stimulus bill, which hasn’t stimulated anything except the avarice of traditional beneficiaries of Democratic official munificence. And his energy plans, based on cap and trade, windmills, and solar panels, and specific opposition to more drilling and to fracking, is now reduced to a feeble claim for credit for all that it formerly opposed. It would be a national tragedy if we got all the way through what promises to be an exceptionally trying and vapid election campaign without a full airing of the president’s fishtailing and flip-flopping on all these and many other matters.