Okay, let’s try this again.
A few days ago Politico published a story citing mostly anonymous senior advisers to Obama claiming that they were going to launch a ferocious attack on Mitt Romney by painting him as “weird.” The basic implication was that the Obama campaign would go beyond issues and target Romney’s biography, character, and cultural instincts.
Though the bulk of what makes this story controversial is based on what unnamed sources claimed — David Axelrod's quotes in the story targeted Romney’s character, but didn’t stray into questioning his identity — it has been major news for days. Senior adviser David Axelrod was forced to respond to the charges last night on CNN and again this morning on MSNBC.
So here’s my question: Why is this such a big deal, given that Mitt Romney has explicitly and publicly been attacking Obama in very similar fashion for months?
Look, I’m not playing the “media double standard” game here. What I’m trying to figure out is why this is being treated as a major scandal. After all, the chatter around the Politico story centers on the idea that it’s vaguely out of bounds to make a candidate’s cultural identity or “otherness” an issue. There’s a good deal of consternation over whether “weird” is a code word for “Mormon.” Yet no Obama advisers broached this idea, even anonymously. By contrast, Romney has repeatedly made Obama’s cultural identity an issue on the record, insinuating in a variety of ways that Obama is vaguely alien, culturally suspect, and potentially harbors ill intentions towards America.
Romney’s announcement speech was all about reinforcing the message that Obama isn’t one of us. He questioned Obama’s appreciation of America as “we” understand it, and suggested Obama has transformed our country into something no longer recognizably American. Romney has accused Obama of “counterfeit values” that would “change the very character of America.” Romney has said: “I believe in the Constitution — and I believe in the greatness of America,” clearly insinuating that Obama doesn’t.
Romney has explicitly stated that Obama’s American-ness and cultural instincts will be central to the 2012 campaign. “The American people have established a perspective on the President which is going to be lasting — that he has not understood the nature of America,” Romney said earlier this year. No, the parallel is not perfect, but the two cases are awfully similar.
Unlike others, I don’t have a problem with the Politico story. I thought its sourcing was pretty clear and that it was well reported, probably conveying insider chatter accurately. And I don’t care much about these sorts of attacks in either direction, as long as they don’t stray into outright falsehoods, such as claiming Obama isn’t American or is a secret Muslim. Politics is a tough business. People attack each other. Big deal.
What’s inexplicable is the nonstop media moralizing over what these unnamed advisers said, while no one bats an eye when Romney himself does roughly the same thing. When Romney does it, it’s just part of the game — at this point, wink-wink-nudge-nudge hints about Obama’s identity are just considered par for the couse. And now that it’s a big, pearl-clutching scandal that unnamed Obama advisers are doing something approximating this, Romney’s public and explicit conduct along the same lines isn’t even part of the conversation. It’s just bizarre.