No one expected Campaign 2012 to be positive or uplifting. The countryâs problems are too severe and the battle lines between Republicans and Democrats have been hardened by almost four years of conflict between the White House and Congress.
But what is most striking about the campaign at this point is not just the negativity or the sheer volume of attack ads raining down on voters in the swing states. It is the sense that all restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back. The other guy does it, so weâre going to do it too.
Romneyâs selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.) as his vice presidential running mate seemed like an opportunity for the both sides to pause and reset after one of the ugliest weeks of the year. Instead, this week has produced the harshest rhetoric and the angriest accusations of the campaign.
Vice President Biden triggered the latest round Tuesday with lines, that, had they been uttered by a Republican, likely would have set off an even bigger firestorm. Biden told an audience in Virginia that Romney would âunchainâ the big banks if he were elected president and then added, âTheyâre going to put yâall back in chains.â
Biden later tried to temper his language, but the damage was done. Within hours, Romney unloaded on the president. Campaigning in Ohio, he said Obamaâs âangry and desperateâ campaign had brought disrespect to the office of the presidency. âMr. President,â he added, âtake your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.â
That brought an incendiary response from the Obama campaign. Spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romneyâs comments âseemed unhinged.â
Both Romney and Obama talk about this election being about big choices. Thatâs certainly true, given the opposing worldviews of the candidates. But fear and anger motivate each sideâs activists. Partisans on both sides imagine the worst will happen if the other side wins. That, in turn, animates the strategies unfolding now.
Mock outrage has long been a part of every campaignâs toolkit, but there is a sense now that the outrage is genuine, that the disrespect that the Chicago and Boston teams now feel for one another has escalated and becomes the justification for ever harsher attacks.
Neither side has had to look far to find an excuse to launch an attack or cry foul. Obamaâs allies took the campaign over the edge last week and the Obama campaign did nothing to stop it. The most egregious example of a campaign out of bounds was the ad prepared by Priorities USA, the super Pac supporting Obama.
The ad tied Romney to the cancer death of the wife of Joe Soptic, who lost his health insurance and his job when a steel company that Bain Capital had taken over while Romney was at the company later went bankrupt, after Romney left Bain.
The ad was not shown on television last week but did air in Cleveland this week. Obama campaign advisers at first tried to distance themselves from the ad by claiming they didnât now the details of Sopticâs situation. In fact, they had used Soptic in one of their own ads earlier this year and put him on a conference call with reporters at the time.