Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate seemed like an opportunity for 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 a Republican uttered them, probably would have set off an even bigger firestorm. He told an audience in Virginia that Romney would “unchain” big banks if elected and then added, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
Biden later tried to temper his language, but the damage was done. Within hours, Romney unloaded on the president. Campaigning in Ohio, he said that Obama’s “angry and desperate” campaign had brought disrespect to the office of the presidency. “Mr. President,” he added, “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”
That brought an incendiary response from the Obama team. Spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney’s comments “seemed unhinged.”
Both Romney and Obama talk about this campaign being about big choices. That’s certainly true, given the candidates’ opposing worldviews. But fear and anger motivate each side’s activists. Partisans 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 campaign’s toolbox, but there is a sense now that the outrage is genuine, that the disrespect that the Chicago and Boston teams feel for each other has escalated and becomes the justification for ever harsher attacks.
Neither side has had to look far for an excuse to attack or cry foul. Obama’s allies took the campaign over the edge last week and his team did nothing to stop it. The most egregious example of a campaign out of bounds was an ad prepared by Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting the president.
The ad linked Romney to the cancer death of the wife of Joe Soptic, who lost his job and health insurance when a steel company that Bain Capital took over while Romney was at the firm later went bankrupt, after Romney left Bain.
The spot was not shown on television last week but did air in Cleveland this week. Obama campaign advisers at first tried to distance themselves from it by saying they didn’t know the details of Soptic’s situation. In fact, they had used him in an ad earlier this year and put him on a conference call with reporters at the time.