Presidential nomination conventions traditionally have been governed by a ceasefire: Out of courtesy and tradition, the rival party yields the national stage to the nominating party. That tradition is now being cast aside by President Obama, who, along with his Democratic Party surrogates, is poised to launch what The Hill calls a "full-scale assault on Republicans" as they gather in Tampa, Florida, next week. Hope and change, meet slash and burn.
While Republicans will be officially nominating Mitt Romney, Democrats, led by Vice President Joe Biden, will converge on Tampa to condemn the GOP as the enemy of women and minorities. According to the Democratic National Committee, Democrats will focus on "how the Republican Party Mitt Romney is being nominated to lead is outside the mainstream on issues of importance to Americans — particularly as it relates to women, Hispanics and African-Americans." President Obama meanwhile is set to stage high-profile rallies in key swing states. Even the First Lady will take part in the counter-convention campaign, with a scheduled appearance on the “David Letterman Show" timed to coincide with the nomination.
If such crude tactics seem a world away from the transcendent, post-partisan pitch of Obama's 2008 campaign, they are by no means exceptional. As the country has soured on his leadership, Obama has beat a hasty retreat from his onetime promise to elevate the political debate. Not content to demonize Mitt Romney as a sinister corporate raider during his time at Bain Capital, the president and his campaign allies have tried to cast him as a criminal and worse. In July, for instance, Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter mused that Romney might be a "felon" who had lied to the Securities and Exchange Commission over his role at Bain Capital, despite having no evidence whatsoever that the charge might be true. Called to account for the smear at a recent press briefing, Obama insisted that "nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon," a strained bit of linguistic parsing premised on the notion that groundless innuendo did not rise to the level of an accusation.
While the president has dodged responsibility for his campaign’s negative bent, Vice President Biden has embraced it. At a campaign rally in Virginia last week, Biden informed a mostly black audience that a Romney presidency would "unchain Wall Street" but that “They’re gonna put ya’ll back in chains.” Crass though it was, Biden’s comment was perfectly revealing of the Obama campaign’s willingness to sacrifice civility for political gain.
On the rare occasions when the president and his team have declined to stoop to smear tactics, Democratic political action committees have been happy to shoulder the burden. Thus Priorities USA Action recently ran a shockingly dishonest ad that tried to link Mitt Romney to the death of a laid-off steelworker's wife. Obama did not condemn the ad, though he generously conceded he personally didn’t “think” that Romney was “somehow responsible for the death." Others, presumably, were free to think so. This is what now passes for post-partisanship in the Obama campaign.
As the Democrats planned hate parade at next week's GOP convention suggests, that's not likely to change any time soon. The Obama campaign has already sunk over $100 million into advertising, the majority of it attacking Romney. Affiliated Democratic groups have pitched in another $20 million for the anti-Romney ad blitz. Millions more will be spent, by both sides, as the presidential race begins in earnest this fall.
The overwhelmingly negative tenor of the campaign is not without its perils. Polls show that the drumbeat of negative campaigning, coupled with the grim economic picture, has dispirited formerly enthusiastic Obama supporters. "There's this sense of disillusionment. We don't see as many people saying he makes them feel proud," Pew Research Center director Andrew Kohut recently said. The point is emphatically driven home in a new documentary by Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group of Supreme Court fame. Titled “The Hope and the Change,” the film interviews committed Democrats whose early support for (and in some cases infatuation with) the president has devolved into buyer’s remorse. The savior of 2008 is the failure of 2012.
Obama is of course not the first president to go negative in a campaign. But because he once made such bold promises to transform the discourse in Washington, the current gap between rhetoric and reality seems particularly stark. Not the least of the ironies of the Obama presidency is that the candidate who promised to rise above partisan rancor has become its incarnation.
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