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.
There is nothing wrong with or even unusual about what Richard Nixon called “rock ’em, sock ’em” campaigns, but what we have so far is mudslinging on one side and bumbling counter-punching on the other, and evasion on both sides. To divert attention from his indefensible record, Obama has invented a Republican war on women, tried to interpose himself between the Roman Catholic Church leadership and the communicants of that church, and tried to whip up envious and reproachful hostility against high earners. It is the 97 percent against the 3 percent who make more than $250,000 per year, against the “billionaires and millionaires,” and all are reminded that they “did not do it on their own,” as if the Obama administration was the trustee that deserved to benefit electorally for whatever degree of financial success anyone has had by virtue of being born in the United States, as opposed to another country.
Not only is President Obama coming perilously close to saying that anyone who fancies it an advantage to have been born in the United States owes his vote, out of gratitude, to the incumbent government of that country. He, who for so long declined to wear an American flag in his lapel, is amplifying a particularly grating version of the traditional quadrennial refrain that so boosts America that the credulous would imagine that no other country in the world was wealthy, free, or even had hot and cold running water in most homes.
No president seeking reelection in modern history has failed to run on his record. McKinley won the war with Spain and defended gold against the bimetallists; Theodore Roosevelt defended the Square Deal; Woodrow Wilson “kept us out of war” in 1916 (though he would ask for a declaration of war five weeks after being reinaugurated). Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected on his record three times and never even mentioned his opponents; Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all defended their performance in office aggressively and were confirmed in office. Taft, Hoover (“Prosperity is just around the corner”), Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush also vigorously defended their own records, albeit unsuccessfully.
But the spectacle we have now — of an incumbent presuming to run for reelection while going to preternatural extremes to avoid discussion of his record, and representing his opponent and his backers as a bunch of greedy crooks instead — is a degradation of the whole process. This indignity is aggravated by Romney’s inability to turn the tables and hold Obama accountable for his shortcomings, and to defend himself effectively from the assault on his career, even though he has a much more impressive CV than the incumbent; and also by the increasingly cocksure frivolity of the Democrats’ sense of entitlement to pour pails of vitriol over their opponent without any effort to justify their own abandonment of almost every promise they made four years ago. They have not only mismanaged the economy and bungled foreign policy (especially with regard to Iran, the reset backwards of relations with Russia, and the general truckling to anti-Americanism in the under-developed world and international organizations); they have betrayed the initial appearance of slick professionalism exuded by Obama in pulling the Clintons’ party out from underneath them in 2008.
Romney should still win, but he will have to raise his game, a levitation that need not give anyone vertigo.