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Politics / commentary

The New, Nasty Obama Campaign

As Cory Booker discovered, "hope and change" is officially dead. A bare-knuckle campaign is now Obama's hallmark. And to many Democrats, it's about time.

May 23, 2012

On Sunday, the Democratic mayor of Newark, N.J., tried to point out that the presidential campaign has gotten awfully brutal awfully fast.

Naturally, Cory Booker promptly got slammed.

But the point Booker was trying to make wasn't only about the legitimacy of attacking private equity -- it was that the tenor of the presidential campaign on both sides has become "nauseating to the American public." In saying so, he touched on something potentially even more unspeakable among Democrats: the idea that the slash-and-burn tactics of Obama's reelection campaign mark a definitive departure from the promise to change politics for the better.

 

"My outrage and really my frustration was about the cynical negative campaigning, the manipulation of the truth," Booker told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Monday night, noting the irony of the fact that his plea for civility had been promptly turned into a partisan weapon. "And so here [Republicans] are plucking sound bites out of that interview to manipulate in a cynical manner, to use them for their own purposes."



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Many a requiem has been written for "that hopey-changey thing," as Sarah Palin so memorably dubbed it. And to be sure, much of the griping about the president's harsh tone is the disingenuous phony outrage of Republicans who would prefer not to be its targets. But as Obama embarks in earnest on his second presidential campaign, deliberately invoking the echoes of 2008 as he does so, the contrast with his old image is especially stark.

From the beginning, the president's reelection campaign has taken a brutal, no-holds-barred approach that's sharply at odds with the conciliatory image that was the central predicate of Obama's entire pre-presidential political career. Whether or not the specific issue of Bain Capital ought to be off limits -- Booker has taken pains to clarify he doesn't think it should be -- there's no denying that Obama's 2012 campaign has seized every opportunity to turn the campaign toward sharply personal attacks of a type that the 2008-vintage Obama would surely have recoiled from. From Romney's treatment of his onetime pet dog to his high-school pranks to his income-tax rate, from the "war on women" to the "war on caterpillars," from "I like being able to fire people" to "I'm not concerned about the very poor," no potential controversy has been too petty, too rhetorically overblown, or too out-of-context to be exploited to the hilt.

None of this is shocking; it's how the game is played. But Obama once ostentatiously refused to play it. In June 2007, for example, when Obama's primary campaign distributed a memo titled "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)" detailing Clinton's connections to India, Obama publicly upbraided his staff, calling it "a dumb mistake" and "unnecessarily caustic." As The New York Times put it at the time, "The memo ... raised questions about Obama's claims that he is above attack politics, which are epitomized by secretly distributing opposition research about a rival."

These days, the Obama campaign distributes harshly critical research memos as a matter of course. And the idea that it might be any other way is viewed as Pollyannaish hand-wringing, or worse, doing the other side's bidding.

"This election, like all other elections, is going to be a choice between two candidates, two records, two visions for the country," the Obama campaign's press secretary, Ben LaBolt, said when asked about the campaign's sharp tone. "We have not heard an affirmative vision from Mitt Romney."

Democrats outside the campaign defend this approach as simple realism.

"The criticism of President Obama for the first year and a half on the left was that he wasn't fighting hard enough," Democratic consultant Karen Finney said. "From the perspective of the campaign, they are fighting hard."

Others point out that negative campaigning has always been a part of politics, and campaigns do it because it works.

"This is going to be an extremely negative campaign because it's going to be a close campaign, but that's not new," said Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf, whose presidential-campaign experience goes back to Mondale '84. "A lot of people on both sides will say, 'Oh, this is awful, people are attacking each other,' but the reality is all campaigns work to take negative information about their opponent and make it part of the public discussion. The other reality is, voters process that information, and it changes their views."

It's also true, as Booker pointed out in his pox-on-both-houses critique, that these tactics are embraced with equal gusto by Romney, the Republicans, and their army of well-funded super PACs. In the face of such firepower, it would be suicidal, Democrats argue, to unilaterally disarm.

"I lived through the Republican assault on Max Cleland, sitting in a wheelchair with one limb because of his service defending his country in Vietnam," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, who served as communications director for the former Georgia senator who lost his 2002 reelection after his opponent ran an ad calling him soft on terrorism that featured images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. "I think the Republicans are full of shit" to complain about negativity.

"This is not the time for us to be having a sensitive, introspective moment about a critique of Mitt Romney's business record," Simmons added. "Give me a break. News flash: There's negativity in campaigns."

If anything, the professional political class seems gratified and relieved that Obama has finally dropped what seemed to many to be a haughty, professorial pretense -- and a political inconvenience.

"I never thought that his approach was a long-term sustainable approach," Simmons said of Obama's onetime calls for civility. "I think the moment of 2008 was a unique moment, and we've returned to the mean. This is the way things go. This is what presidential campaigning is in the 21st century. Republicans would give no quarter whatsoever in going after anything like this."

Nonetheless, it's worth remembering how central a part of Obama's brand civility was. The speech that launched him as a national figure in 2004 was a call for unity that decried the slicing of the country into "red states" and "blue states." The uplifting premise of his 2008 campaign was a promise to get beyond the old, contentious political divisions. Sure, he was never as pure as he pretended to be, and he did what he had to do to get elected. But people really believed this stuff -- including Obama's own people, who carefully guarded the specialness of his brand.

Until very recently -- within the last year -- the keepers of the Obama flame were still working to preserve the post-partisan pose, even when it proved politically costly. Throughout 2009 and into 2010, political staffers chafed at the White House's insistence that they take the high road, recalled Ed Espinoza, who was a regional political director for the Democratic National Committee at the time.

Faced with a Republican minority that had quickly adopted a strategy of total obstruction, "We told them, 'We have to hit back,'" Espinoza recalled. "They said, 'We're not going to go that road. We're post-partisan.' So we stood there and we got clobbered. We got our asses handed to us at every turn. But the response was, 'We can't respond. It lowers us to their level.' So they beat us up and they weakened us going into [the 2010 midterm elections]."

In the final months before November 2010, Obama did step up the partisanship somewhat, railing against Republicans for "sipping on a Slurpee" after "driving the economy into a ditch." But even after the midterm shellacking, the post-partisan dream was not yet dead.

Throughout early 2011 -- a period soberingly punctuated by the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- the DNC was under orders to hold back from directly criticizing congressional Republicans, with whom Obama was trying to deal. As Noam Scheiber recently reported in The New Republic, a planned political assault on the first version of the Ryan budget last spring was squelched by aides who feared it would dynamite the debt-limit negotiations.

But then the debt-ceiling talks blew up, an event that was, by all accounts, the breaking point for both Obama personally and his team. Since then, bipartisan compromise has been out the window, and all-out war has been the order of the day.

"We tried the post-partisan thing. It wasn't working, and that's where the carpet bombing comes in," Espinoza said. "We know the Republicans are not going to stand down. They're not going to play nice. They're going to fight dirty, so the Obama campaign is braced for it, and they're going on offense early."

Some Democrats acknowledge that there are potential costs to the tough new tone. By framing the election so aggressively as voters' choice of who they like least, Team Obama is tacitly admitting that the president's positive pitch isn't a persuasive one. And the embrace of rough-and-tumble politics is sure to discourage many of Obama's true believers from 2008, who, however naively, took seriously his claim to being a different kind of politician.

But in these polarized times, the president's team has concluded, the high road is a luxury they can no longer afford. Besides, to many Democrats, Obama's promise of a more high-minded, less divisive approach was never much more than a nice line.

"It was the right thing to say. It's always a good thing to appeal to people's better angels," said one Democratic presidential campaign veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But it is tough to sustain that in this day and age."

To those, like Booker, who fret about negativity, this strategist responded: "Quit your whining and help us beat the other guy. If you want to stay home and blog about how disappointed you are, see how you feel when President Romney is sworn in."

 

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