Any last hope that this year’s election would be anything but an unprecedented wallow in muck, misstatement and disrespect was lost Wednesday, at a neighborhood spaghetti joint on the border between Ohio and West Virginia. Vice President Joe Biden, after a day of glad-handing locals and attacking the values of Mitt Romney, stopped off for some chicken parmesan, initially unaware that a few feet away sat Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign who had flown to Ohio for no other reason than to cause problems for the Vice President.
For years now, rival campaigns have sent low level staff, called “trackers,” to shadow each others’ campaigns. They were often interns toting video cameras who passively mingle with supportive crowds hoping to catch a candidate in a gaffe. Williams, a former communications director for the New Hampshire GOP, is a different breed—a hybrid spokesman/tracker. He toted an iPhone, but seemed uninterested in documenting Biden’s every move. Rather, he was there to cause mischief in the hopes of getting attention from the press.
Earlier in the day, at Biden’s noontime campaign speech in Youngstown, Williams had arrived quietly, nervously walking by the national press who recognized him, as if he did not want to be noticed. The event was opened to the ticketed public, and Williams had flown into the state the night before to visit a local Obama campaign headquarters to request his ticket. He sat politely through vice president’s remarks, and then, with the event over, made his way to press corps where, with many Obama staff unaware, he began spitting fire. “It’s remarkable to see a presidential ticket that ran on hope and change in 2008 resort to such negative and dishonest campaign tactics,” Williams said, among other things, before entering the press filing area to continue the onslaught. “Voters elected Barack Obama in 2008 to fix the economy. Now he has no record to run on for reelection.”
Once Obama campaign staff figured out what was going on, they asked the Secret Service to ask Williams to leave the press filing area, which is reserved for credentialed reporters, but allowed him to remain at the event. It was by no means the first Obama campaign event that a Romney tracker/spokesman had crashed to spin free media gold. And Williams restricted himself to speaking with reporters, choosing not to confront the staff or other dignitaries, like former Gov. Ted Strickland, who stood nearby also working the reporters.
Then came dinner.
In an interview afterwards, Williams said that he had happened upon Biden’s unannounced dining location by accident. Steubenville is a faded steel town on the Ohio River, known for being the birthplace of Dean Martin but not for its many dining options. When he arrived at the restaurant, with a newly hired Romney state staffer, Chris Maloney, they were informed that a secret guest would be arriving later, so they settled in for a long meal.
Biden entered shortly after 6 p.m. with his usual burst of enthusiasm. “I love Italian food, and I am hungry,” he said, before joining his dinner guests, the owners of a nearby automobile dealership where Biden will speak Thursday. After reporters had been ushered out of the main dining hall, staff identified Williams and pointed him out to the Vice President, who invited the Romney staffer over to his table. At that point, even though there were no reporters in the room, Williams went on the attack, asking by his own account, “Why do you think coal is more important than terrorism?” (Biden’s own staff said they had trouble making out exactly what Williams said.)
In eastern Ohio, just a few miles from a major coal-powered electricity plant, the question was about as courteous as asking why a politician beats his wife. It was based on a bit of opposition research: In 2007, Biden was asked on HBO’s Bill Maher show to rank the degree of danger that “air that has too much coal in it,” high-fructose corn syrup or terrorism posed to the American people. Biden answered that coal and corn syrup killed a greater number of Americans, though he did not discount the danger of terrorism. “That is not in any way to diminish the fact that a terrorist attack is real,” Biden said on the program.
Biden did not answer the Romney staffer’s question. And moments later he shifted his dinner party to an adjoining table so that he could distance himself from Williams, who staff said continued to appear to be eavesdropping on the vice president’s conversation. On Twitter, Williams announced that Biden was “quickly ushered out of the dining room,” but Biden’s staff said he only moved a few feet, to the other side of a divider in the same open dining area.
The Steubenville confrontation comes at a time when both the Romney and Obama campaigns have settled on daily messaging that is almost entirely negative, and often misleading. In Youngstown, Biden had been introduced on stage by a former employee of a company that had gone bankrupt after it was purchased by Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Romney once ran. “All I can tell you is Mitt Romney will stick it to you,” said Randy Johnson. Another Obama surrogate at the event, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, described the presumptive Republican nominee as “a person who represents the 1 percent.” “I sometimes feel sorry for Mitt Romney,” Strickland continued, “because I feel he tries to relate to ordinary people but does not have the capacity to do so.”
Biden’s own speech was also fiercely negative, portraying Romney as a financier more interested in wealth creation than job creation, who did not understand the needs and hopes of working people. That message was matched by an afternoon Obama campaign conference call with reporters, in which deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter described Romney and his business partners as greedy money men who ruined the lives of many working people. “They didn’t create jobs,” she said. “They slashed and burned them.”
All this comes just a few weeks after the official start of the general election, and the tone is only bound to deteriorate further. For both campaigns, positive messages about their own candidates’ plans are easily drowned out by the fusillade of daily attacks, which speak to core strategic goals. Obama is determined to disqualify Romney as someone who Americans see as a viable president. Romney is determined to hold Obama responsible for every bit of economic misery that has occurred over the last three years.
For the Romney campaign, the Williams stunt was seen as a success. On Thursday, the RNC released an online video that neatly followed the messaging of Williams own question with an attack on the Obama Administration. “Vice President Biden will try and gloss over their anti-coal agenda to try and shore up their plummeting support among blue collar voters,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, in a statement to reporters, “but their record speaks for itself.” This was accompanied by a new RNC web video filled with carefully edited quotes from Obama and Biden about coal. No doubt a prompt response attacking the values of Mitt Romney will be forthcoming from Chicago.