Dana Milbank: The ugly presidential campaign

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer August 15, 2012

The umbrage industry is working overtime this week.

Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ presidential standard-bearer, is so outraged by President Obama’s attacks that he called the president a hater: “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

On Wednesday afternoon, John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, re-tweeted an article by The Washington Post’s Dan Balz titled, “A most poisonous campaign.” McCain added his opinion: “I agree — it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

That’s the same conclusion that conservative commentator Brit Hume drew for his Fox News Channel viewers on Tuesday night. “This is about as ugly as I’ve seen it get,” he said.

Forgive me, but I’m not prepared to join this walk down Great Umbrage Street just yet. Yes, it’s ugly out there. But is this worse than four years ago, when Obama was accused by the GOP vice presidential nominee of “palling around with terrorists”? Or eight years ago, when Democratic nominee John Kerry was accused of falsifying his Vietnam War record?

What’s different this time is that the Democrats are employing the same harsh tactics that have been used against them for so long, with so much success. They have ceased their traditional response of assuming the fetal position when attacked, and Obama’s campaign is giving as good as it gets — and then some.

Balz is correct when he observes that the “most striking” element of the campaign is “the sense that all restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back.” In large part, this is because the Democrats are no longer simply whining about the other side being reckless and unfair: They are being reckless and unfair themselves.

The starkest example of this was an ad by Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, that implied that Romney was to blame for a woman’s death because her husband lost his job and health insurance when Bain Capital took over his steel mill. After an initial attempt to distance themselves from the super PAC — Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz comically claimed that she had “no idea” about the political affiliation of the group, which is run by two former Obama staffers — Democratic officials defended the ad’s accusation.

David Axelrod said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the ad “doesn’t cross the line” and then pivoted to declare that Romney “ought to be ashamed of himself” for running a false ad about Obama’s welfare policy.

It’s true that Romney is in a weak position to be complaining that the other side has been mean and nasty. He won the nomination by eviscerating his rivals with negative ads and accusations, and an ad his team aired last week that falsely claimed Obama was gutting welfare-to-work requirements injected racial politics into the campaign.

Also, many of the things Romney complains about are not unusual. Asked Wednesday morning by CBS News to explain why he thinks Obama has brought hatred into the campaign, Romney mentioned “the divisiveness based upon income, age, ethnicity and so forth. It’s designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger.” But that’s standard fare for a presidential campaign.

Obama and Vice President Biden dialed back their rhetoric on Wednesday, a day after Biden enraged the other side by telling a racially mixed audience in Virginia that Romney, by unshackling Wall Street, would “put y’all back in chains.”

Biden, at Virginia Tech on Wednesday, made sure to state that Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are “decent, honorable guys.” When Obama, in Iowa, mentioned Ryan, the crowd began to boo. “No, no, no,” Obama said. “I know him. He’s a good man, beautiful family. . . . I just happen to fundamentally disagree with his vision.”

But that doesn’t mean the Democrats are retiring their newly acquired incendiary devices. Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the campaign had “no problem” with Biden’s chains claim and said Obama “probably agrees with Joe Biden’s sentiments.” She derided the Romney side’s “faux outrage” and called the Republicans “hypocritical.”

Eight years ago, Cutter was a staffer on the Kerry campaign when the candidate was undone by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on his war record. Cutter, like other Democrats, learned a hard truth back then: Umbrage doesn’t win elections. Ruthlessness does.

Read more Washington Sketch columns at washingtonpost.com/milbank.

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