President Obama's reelection effort isn't the toughest, or most aggressive, in American history.
It only looks and feels that way compared with the gauzy memories most have of the lilt, sunshine, and post-partisan pixie dust of 2008.
Never mind that Obama was tough in the clutch during his primary cage match with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and unstinting in his criticism of Republican nominee John McCain as a heroic but nevertheless remanufactured jalopy off the George W. Bush assembly line.
Obama did trade in 2008 on aspirations of a political world without petty partisan differences, "tit-for-tat" haggling over wedge issues, or real or imagined flip-flops. Now it often feels as if Obama's reelection talking points strain to rise to tit-for-tat seriousness. What they undoubtedly lack, according to senior advisers to GOP candidate Mitt Romney, is a conviction that limits exist and that the brutal work of attempting to disqualify Romney is just that. Brutal.
Here’s but a short list: accusations that step right up to labeling Romney a felon; supportive super PAC ads that imply a decision by Romney’s former private equity firm (Bain Capital) to close a steel mill contributed to the death of the wife of a laid-off steelworker; sharp but unsubstantiated allegations from a surrogate that Romney might not have paid federal income taxes.
All in bounds, Obama said on Monday from the White House.
“Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon,” Obama said, even though Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter said on July 12 that was a possibility in reference to Securities and Exchange Commission documents Romney filed. “What is absolutely true is if you watch me on the campaign trail, here's what I'm talking about: I'm talking about how we put Americans back to work, and there are sharp differences between Romney in terms of how we would do that. If you look at the overall trajectory of our campaign and the ads that I have approved and are produced by my campaign, you will see that we point out sharp differences between the candidates, but we don't go out of bounds.”
As for the Priorities USA super PAC ad that suggests a decision made by Romney’s firm to shutter a steel mill contributed to the death of a steelworker’s wife, Obama said it wasn’t on his watch or his fault.
“I don't think Governor Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad,” Obama said. “But keep in mind, this is an ad that I didn't approve, I did not produce, and as far as I can tell, has barely run. I think it ran once.”
If you enter April 19, 2008 in the Obama Way Back Machine, you will find him starchily denouncing no end of charges from Sen. Clinton as the two fought for votes in the Pennsylvania primary. Obama then said he felt pelted by Clinton. "She's got the kitchen sink flying, the china flying,” Obama said. “The buffet is coming at me.” The main dish? “Petty tit-for-tat politics.”
Romney advisers believe that Obama's playing a dangerous game, imagining he is more likable than he is and betting that running against his 2008 brand won't discourage voters who genuinely thought Obama was and would be different.
"Obama can't run on what he's done and he can't run on what he represents anymore," said a senior Romney adviser. "Voters will see that, and that gives us a chance to tell Romney's story and win."
Romney's team will devote a good part of its convention week to lamenting — for political purposes — Obama's campaign coldness and harshness (Obama even brought out the shaggy-dog line of attack about Romney's dog Seamus in Iowa last week). The first day's theme in Tampa, Fla., "We Can Do Better," is all-inclusive. Political tone is part of it. Romney's convention stage managers will use all the tools of sets and lighting and presentation to create an atmosphere of warmth and accessibility — a visual and tonal attempt to contrast Romney with Obama's penchant for punching and counterpunching. This is Romney's last chance to create some kind of glow; last week's scorn over Obama's harshness — and the ensuing debate over its sincerity — was a tactical prelude to Tampa.
Democrats laud Team Obama's tenacity, in part because they want to protect the hard-won gains of his first two years. They want a harshly protective president to defend health care, bank regulations, and green-energy investments, not to mention education spending, Medicaid, Medicare, and environmental regulations. Discouraging words about the combative Obama — former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama notwithstanding — are rare.
Obama's campaign didn't flinch or even fake a wince when Vice President Joe Biden said that Romney's desire to undo Obama's raft of new Wall Street regulations would put Americans "back in chains." That Biden said it in a Southern drawl he kept conspicuously under wraps during 30-plus years in the Senate and two presidential campaigns mattered not at all — or that it was said in Danville, Va., a city with a deep history of racial scars arising out of civil-rights protests, arrests, and police violence. All this racially layered context evaporated, Obama's team said, next to Biden's underlying point about the evils of any attempt to eradicate the Dodd-Frank regulations of big banks.
Obama advisers readily admit they have spent the summer trying to cut the ground out from under Romney by making him appear secretive and heartless. Not just someone who is wealthy, but who has a bullying side. It's the Romney project.
That's the underlying message behind the attacks on Bain Capital, and the endless fascination that Team Obama has in Romney's tax returns. After implying Romney might have committed a felony in the filing of a form to the SEC, the Obama team then subcontracted to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada the task of smoking out Romney on taxes.
In 2008, it would have been hard to fathom an Obama campaign standing alongside a surrogate who alleged a rival candidate paid no income taxes — an allegation based on anonymous, uncorroborated hearsay evidence.
"This whole thing with Harry is absurd when you think about it," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told National Journal, referring to Romney's reaction, not Reid's charge. "Because he [Romney] could end this whole discussion in 10 minutes. He could come and say ‘Here they are, here’s my last 10 years of tax returns. Here’s my last 23 I gave to John McCain and as you can see I paid taxes every year, net taxes every year. So Harry Reid, you’re a f****** liar. Easy."
Obama's campaign last week dialed its request for tax records back to five years, which Romney summarily ignored. But Reid's tenacity and audacity (a different kind than Obama wrote about) kept the issue alive and forced it into a Romney question-and-answer session. That's where Romney said he's paid no less than a 13 percent effective federal tax rate over the past 10 years.
Additionally, Obama's team knows it's been taking flak for months from Romney's allies in the super PAC community and makes no apologies for hitting back with a vengeance at Romney, whom many Obama senior advisers believe weeps crocodile tears over campaign rhetoric while leaving the toughest attacks to super PAC allies. While it's true Obama has spent more head-to-head than Romney ($85.3 million to $50.3 million, largely because Romney can only spend general election donations after the convention), the pro-Romney and pro-GOP super PACS have tilted overall spending in Romney's favor ($168.5 million for Romney to $102.7 million for Obama, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group).
"Campaign to campaign [spending] doesn't mean s***," Axelrod said. "What matters is gross spending. I said a long time ago that they've contracted their hits out to contract hit men."
Obama's campaign also believes its intense swing-state focus on abortion and contraception issues has been given new and possibly crippling heft with Rep. Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" as he seeks to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. The Romney campaign swiftly distanced itself from Akin, but Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, cosponsored legislation with Akin that unsuccessfully sought to redefine "forcible rape" in the federal code. Tough commercials on this are in the works, as are radio ads in swing states battering Romney and Ryan for domestic spending cuts in Ryan's GOP budget blueprints.
Obama's team trafficked in sweetness and light in 2008, or so it seemed. That was the opportunistic play. It contrasted helpfully with the allegedly dark political arts of the Clintons and President Bush's unpopular performance as a warrior president presiding over an economic meltdown. Optimism is fool's gold now and no longer the opportunist's path. Disqualification is the coin of the realm. And Obama's team is buying.