Gentlemen M.I.A.: What the Loss of Campaign Decorum Means for America

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Lori Shepler / Reuters

Brian Brady with the "California Tea Party" activist group waves a U.S. national flag during a protest, Newport Beach, Calif., June 1, 2012.

Gentlemen, it seems, need no longer apply for President of the United States. The Obama and Romney campaigns no longer pretend that 2012 election will be a respectful, dignified ordeal. There will be little dialog. It won’t be fair or reasoned. It will be ugly.

Last week, when the Obama campaign staged an event in Boston to highlight the low-lights of Mitt Romney’s stint as Governor, the Romney campaign pounced. Not only did staffers counter the event with their own press conference, as is the habit of both campaigns, but they heckled Obama aide David Axelrod with chants of “Where are the jobs” and “Solynnnn-dra” as he tried to speak. CBS News reported that one Romney campaign staffer blew bubbles at the former White House adviser. For a few minutes, it was as if the campaign of the Republican nominee for President was under the direction of Code Pink.

Presidential campaigns on both sides once condemned such antics, or at least denied any official involvement. The premise of the American democratic process has long been that there should be an open and honest debate, with a full airing of opposing viewpoints so that voters can make the best decision. The idea was that both sides got to have their say. At this point in the 2008 race, four years ago, John McCain was proposing that Barack Obama travel with him around the country on the same plane to host a series of joint town hall debates, and Barack Obama was saying that sounded like a great idea. (It was all posturing, but at least they had assumed the posture.)

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Now things are different. On the same day that Romney staffers heckled Axelrod in Massachusetts, the Republican candidate showed up at the shuttered Solyndra factory in California, where reporters asked him about his campaign’s unruliness. Romney could not have been prouder. “At some point you say, you know, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” he said. “If they are going to be heckling us, we are not going to sit back and play by very different rules.” See here at 5:27:

“They did it first” is a justification combatants often use to escalate war. But its application in this case is a bit cloudy. The Obama campaign, with staff and signage, have not tried to disrupt a Romney event in quite the same way that the Romney campaign did in Boston, though liberal protesters do disrupt Romney events on an almost daily basis, a fact that the Obama campaign has not gone out of its way to condemn. (The one possible exception to this was a Washington Post report from late last month: “Residents, some of them organized by Obama’s campaign, stood on their porches and gathered at a sidewalk corner to shout angrily at Romney. Some held signs saying, ‘We are the 99%.'” For the record, there is no evidence the Obama campaign has adopted signage like “we are the 99%” in an official capacity.)

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If escalation is the game, there is no telling where it might end. At Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston, the disruption of Axelrod was a banner day. Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign’s top message strategist, told the New York Times, “If ever there was a hanging curve ball, it was the idea of trying to pull off an Obama event within a short walk from the Romney headquarters.” Eric Fehrnstrom, one of Romney’s top press men, joyfully called the incident the “Boston Massacre” on his Twitter account, a violent metaphor that might have caused controversy only a few years ago. Fehrnstrom also posted this photo of Axelrod, his counterpart on Obama’s senior staff, awkwardly bending down to hear a reporter’s question with drips of sweat on his cheek and the hollering Romney masses behind him. “My favorite photo,” Fehrnstrom wrote.

via ‏@EricFehrn / Twitter

If a professional athlete posted a humiliating photo of a rival on Twitter, my guess is that ESPN commentators would condemn it as unsportsmanlike. But Fehrnstrom’s Tweet hardly merited a mention in the political press. We have become numb to this sort of posturing. Just a few months back, Axelrod posted on his Twitter account this photo, with the message, “How loving owners transport their dogs.”

via ‏@davidaxelrod / Twitter

Reporters treated it as a bit of humor, but in context it’s something else. Axelrod was basically accusing Mitt Romney, his boss’s Republican rival for the White House, of being a dog abuser, a claim for which there is no definitive evidence. (It is true that Romney put his dog in a kennel on top of the family car years ago, but Romney has said the dog was never in discomfort; there is little else in Romney’s biography to suggest a lack of regard toward domestic animals.)

(VIDEO: Mark Halperin Interviews Mitt Romney)

Is it all just harmless fun when a former senior White House aide and close adviser to the President hints that the presumptive Republican nominee is cruel to animals? Or is it something more serious, like clear evidence of an erosion in civility at the highest level? And if it is evidence of an erosion of civility, what does it mean for our country? Where does it end?

On Wednesday, the Pew released a massive study of trends in U.S. partisanship which found an ever-increasing cleave down the center of the country, with the value sets of the left and the right growing further apart. This alienation within the Union has already had effects in Washington: Cable and Internet political news is now delivered largely from a partisan perspective; compromise is fleeting if ever attainable; and political gain is often found in demonizing or exaggerating opponents. When it comes to political ideology, the country is becoming increasingly tribal.

At the same time, both political tribes are increasingly likely to see their own tribal leaders as weak and ineffective. Only 28% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters think their own party leadership is doing an excellent or good job of standing up for the party’s traditional positions. Only 41% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say they same about their leaders.

So there is insecurity in the highest ranks. Polls tell professionals like Axelrod and Fehrnstrom that their own supporters want them to be more forceful, and in practice that often means less civil. For another example of this, just take a look at how often senior Obama campaign officials now cuss, saying B.S. and bullsh*t in YouTube videos to supporters, and dropping F-bombs in background quotes. The underlying message: Don’t mess with us. We mean business. (A cynic could suggest an even more dubious motivation: To highlight Romney’s otherness, since he does not ever use words unfit for broadcast television or family magazines.)

At the Romney headquarters in Boston, there is a justified wariness about the shear viciousness of the disqualification campaign that Obama is now rolling out against Romney. And there is a clear need for Romney to rally the more extreme parts of his own base, who long ago embraced incivility as a rational response to outrageous circumstances. This helps explain why Romney not only appeared at a fundraiser with birth-certificate-denying television personality Donald Trump, but also why he used the occasion to release his own birth certificate. Romney was making clear that while he won’t embrace the crazy–he officially believes that President Obama in a citizen–he is comfortable employing the crazy to further his cause. The fighting spirit in Boston closely tracks the old saw, “All’s fair in love, and war… and politics.” It’s a nice line, but if that is the standard, it sets the American political process on a troubling path.

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Evidence of declining standards is ever-present this cycle. The Obama campaign’s first major negative ad of the general election compared Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital, to a blood sucking vampire. In an early conference call with reporters, Axelrod called Romney a “charlatan.” When Romney showed up at the Solyndra factory, he began his remarks by saying something completely false. “An independent inspector general looked at this investment and concluded that the Administration had steered money to friends and family — to campaign contributors,” Romney said. There is no public record of the inspector general for the Department of Energy ever reaching that conclusion. The only time he ever said “friends and family” on the record was when he described to a House committee his plans to look for such impropriety across a broad range of government spending programs. But such blatant efforts to deceive the American people no longer carry any apparent cost. Romney has still not corrected the record.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about another example of this civility slide. In a Stuebenville, Ohio, pasta house, a spokesman for Mitt Romney, who has taken to shadowing Obama campaign officials around the country, confronted Vice President Joe Biden with a loaded question that went something like, “Why do you think coal is more important than terrorism?” It was an insult more than a question, and several Democratic campaign staffers were aghast that an opposing campaign staffer would approach a campaign principal with so little respect. But given the trend, maybe it’s more shocking that this doesn’t happen all the time. The spokesman’s stunt attracted a bunch of news coverage, which helped set up the Republican message of the day at little apparent cost. It was a stunt that worked.

A few weeks earlier in Virginia, Democrats arranged an outdoor press conference to counter a Republican press conference that was countering a planned campaign visit to the state by Obama. So it goes these days. As the Democratic press conference got under way, an unidentified man across the street started revving the engine of a backhoe, making the audio and video of the Democratic event all but unusable. Republicans denied that they were behind the engine revving, though it stopped in time for their event. After the incident, a state Republican party spokesman joked with a reporter about the race to the bottom. “They want to be 11, I can be 12,” the spokesman said. “Don’t try to out-petty me. . . You will lose.”

I predict this motto will take on increasing relevance for both presidential campaigns–and for both their supporters–in the coming months. No good for the country or for the democratic process will come of it. And the only people who can stop the slide–the American voting public–will raise an objection. That’s the thing about democracy: You end up with the country you deserve.

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