It could normally be presumed that the Democrats will put the best imaginable face on their administration and charge out of their convention with an agreed rationale for what they intend to do if reelected and why they deserve to be on the basis of the last four years. But in the last two weeks, the Democrats from Obama down, and their noisiest ciphers in the media, have focused entirely on an ear-splitting campaign of denigration against the Republicans. It did not require a clairvoyant to foresee that there would be screams of affected pain at the prospect of Paul Ryan’s budget being enacted. But what has been surprising has been the hysteria of the presentation of the side issues, the desperation with which senior spokespeople have invented reasons to return to the very refutable charges of a Republican war on women. Romney and Ryan have both been portrayed as misogynists and inflexible abortion-criminalizers in ways so frenzied and false that even Anderson Cooper and other personalities of the almost unrelievedly liberal CNN have been strenuously charging Obama’s supporters with misrepresentation. For CNN to unleash its fact-checkers to take on the Democrats is a first in my admittedly rather sketchy exposure to its newscasts over many years, and is especially remarkable as this required reining in the egregious Wolf Blitzer from his neurotic state of nervosity about Ryan’s acceptance-speech reference to the auto plant in his Wisconsin congressional district that Obama indicated would remain open if he were elected four years ago.
I will go out on a limb and predict that the Democrats will continue to fan the flames of hysteria about the Republicans’ banning abortion, ending Medicare, making health care inaccessible, torturing gays, and prostrating the U.S. government to the pink elephants of Obama’s nightmares, the “billionaires and millionaires.” (The president has his share of them among his contributors — he disparages them as fat cats, but they still pack the salons of the Upper East Side and Beverly Hills, the political version of dogs licking the hand of the vivisectionist.) It cannot be said that the Republicans were any champions of explicit promises until Ryan became the vice-presidential designate, but with that selection, they are automatically endowed with a serious proposal to address the deficit, something the administration has not hinted at in over three and a half years. Romney and Ryan now can, and will, say that they have a solution to the country’s greatest problem, the impending collapse of the fiscal order, and with it the integrity of the currency and underlying strength of the American economy and the credibility of the country generally.
Every presidential nominee who has been elected in a party regime change in the last century has defined a course change in his campaign, even if it proved to be spurious. Woodrow Wilson was going to end Taft’s “dollar diplomacy,” attack monopolies more strenuously, and found a central bank (and he did so). Warren Harding was going to avoid “submergence in internationalism” and adopt policies for economic growth including tax reductions (and he did so). Franklin D. Roosevelt promised “a New Deal for the American people” and delivered it. Dwight D. Eisenhower promised that he would “go to Korea,” by which he meant end the Korean War, and he did both. John F. Kennedy promised a rather vague New Frontier, which came to include tax reductions and promotion of civil rights for African Americans, as well as closing the alleged “missile gap.” He proposed tax-cut and civil-rights bills, which his successor, Lyndon Johnson, passed after Kennedy’s death, and they discovered that there was no missile gap, so it was indeed closed. Richard Nixon said, “I have a plan” for Vietnam, patting his breast pocket as if he had it with him. He didn’t; it was a complete and amiable fabrication, but he developed one and implemented it. Jimmy Carter promised to end the moral climate of Watergate, and his apologists claim that he did so, even though Gerald Ford had already achieved this. Ronald Reagan promised tax reductions and an arms build-up and delivered them, and they were successful in delivering immense prosperity and the end of the Cold War. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush promised less profound changes, as there was less that the public was worried or angry about when they became president, though Bush promised that there would be no more complaints of sexual harassment or inconstancy against the president, and, of course, there weren’t. Barack Obama promised “hope and change,” including energy conservation, green jobs, “spreading the wealth” around a bit, and increased financial regulation and comprehensive obligatory health care. Mr. Obama has made an effort and some of this has been at least partially achieved, although most voters and observers, including me, don’t think it has worked well.
But there is no sign that the administration is seriously prepared to defend anything it has done, except, up to a point, its health-care law and the auto-industry bailout, and no sign that it has any campaign plan except to frighten the socks off the voters with a demonic campaign of defamation against the Republican candidates. Given the extent to which the Democrats have shown their hand, and the Republicans have a loaded war chest and plenty of experience at parrying attacks and mudslinging from their own primary contests, it would be astounding if they were not ready for a massive counteroffensive. I am still at the end of that limb, but this looks like a somewhat desperate Democratic effort, unbecoming an incumbent, to smear the opponent with the broadest brush and foulest coat of lies. The presidents mentioned above, when seeking reelection, barely mentioned their opponents and stood on their records. Wilson (1916), Roosevelt (1936), Eisenhower (1956), Nixon (1972), Reagan (1984), and Clinton (1996) hardly campaigned at all. Carter tried to but couldn’t defend his own record and instead tried in vain to portray Reagan as an extremist. George W. Bush effectively portrayed his opponent, John Kerry, as inconsistent on the Iraq War and unreliable on terrorism, and it worked. (Kerry had taken credit for supporting the attack on Saddam, and for voting to withhold funds from the operation — a difficult position for his opponent to resist attacking.)
As I am enjoying my incumbency at the end of the limb, and as I write before the Democratic Convention has even opened, I predict that we will hear a barrage of self-righteous entitlement to continuance in office, pandering to voting blocs, posturing as egalitarians trying to slay the dragons of privilege and reaction, and caricatures of the Republicans on a scale that will make Joseph Goebbels seem as if he just occasionally fibbed with his fingers crossed behind his back while speaking to large audiences. There will be no serious effort to justify the administration’s record, apart from scathing cascades deprecating what preceded it. This will be the first administration to run for reelection while running away from its own record since Martin Van Buren in 1840 pretended there was no economic depression in the country, as he couldn’t accept responsibility for it himself, nor lay it at the door of his still-popular predecessor and patron, Andrew Jackson. It didn’t work then, and unless Romney and Ryan are struck dumb in contemplation of the major career change that should now impend for them, it won’t work now.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].