The Romney campaign, once again, proves Wednesday morning that it is the most effective and disciplined of the GOP operations this year with a rapid-response web spot, and fundraising appeal, attacking President Obama for being a civility hypocrite. Take a look at the spot.
Note the, um, liberal and misleading use of Crowley’s Swampland post to make the point. Note also that the ad, perhaps like all great ads, is far more distortion than fact. “It is disgraceful that President Obama’s campaign has launched his re-election with the stated goal to ‘kill’ his opponent with an onslaught of negative and personal attacks,” vented Campaign Manager Matt Rhoades on Tuesday in a statement that should not be reprinted without pointing out that it is false. There is no evidence that anyone in the Obama campaign or the Obama inner circle ever said they wanted to “kill” Romney.
Here is what happened: Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin, two of the best political reporters on the 2012 campaign, wrote a story about the emerging negative strategy of the Obama campaign when it comes to Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney. It included some fresh quotes from Obama aides and campaign adviser David Axelrod, casting Romney as an odd, rich Wall Street guy who changes positions on key issues. It also restated the conventional wisdom: That the best model for Obama’s 2012 campaign may be George W. Bush’s 2004 spring assault on John Kerry, which helped establish the idea that Kerry was a flip-flopper.
Quite apart from all this information from inside Obama’s inner circle, Smith and Martin dropped in a blind quote with the phrase “Kill Romney” at the top of their piece from someone who was identified as “a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House.” Yesterday, via Twitter, Smith made the point that this person was clearly distinct from the others in the piece because he or she “isn’t being described as a member of the team.”
This might be a good time to review how the reporting game works. In doing a story like this, you call the people on the inside, and you call the people on the outside who might have talked to someone on the inside. As Smith and Martin presented the “kill” quote, this was someone in the latter category. Whether it was someone who actually talks to people on the inside, or whether it was someone who is simply “aligned” with the goals of the inside–that is, every Democratic strategist in town–is not clear. But it is this “kill” quote that Romney’s campaign latched onto, and quickly attributed falsely to the campaign.
So, what does this say about the Obama campaign strategy? There is absolutely no doubt that it will be negative. This is how re-elects tend to go, and given the economy, Obama doesn’t have much good news to run on. (For that matter, Romney’s campaign strategy is also entirely negative, for different reasons.) The question raised by the Romney campaign is whether the Obama strategy will be uncivil in its negativity. And for this we have no answer from Smith and Martin’s story. I would not be surprised at all if the first Obama ads of 2012 focus not on Romney’s personal quirks, but on his support for House Republican’s policy priorities.
We do learn that Obama’s advisers use the word “weird” to describe Romney, a play clearly designed to contrast with Obama’s relatively high personal favorability numbers, but then such factors always play a role in campaigns, especially campaigns against Romney. There is no question that Romney’s ability to connect with voters is his main weakness as a candidate, one that I wrote a piece about in January. Every Romney opponent in 2008 tried to raise this issue, whether it was John McCain who just mocked Romney as an uncool phony or Mike Huckabee who compared Romney to bad dog food. But making hay of Romney’s people skills, while a form of negative campaigning, is a far cry from saying Democrats should kill the guy.
All signs point to 2012 as a particularly ugly election campaign. It is important for reporters, and for the voting public, to demand that terms like “incivility” retain their meaning. In an angry country, the stakes are high. Campaigns are free to be fiercely negative, but it is not okay if these same campaigns veer from the facts or call on the nation to lower itself with violent metaphors or divisive rhetoric. If the Obama campaign crosses the civility line, they should be called out. In the meantime, the Romney campaign needs to be held to account as well.