Mitt Romney should have been feeling great on Tuesday night. Crisscrossing five swing states over four days, he was greeted by some of the best crowds of the campaign. The politics of his Vice Presidential pick are open for debate, but Paul Ryan’s debut was a success. Romney was clicking on the stump. His final venue on the tour, a charming, flag-bedecked boulevard in Chillicothe, Ohio, was a pitch-perfect piece of pageantry. Gazing out at a sea of supporters, Romney had reason to believe he was turning this thing around.
So it was surprising to see Romney use what might have been an upbeat, triumphant moment to strike out at Barack Obama. Romney called his opponent’s campaign a “disgrace” to his office. “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago,” he said. On Wednesday morning, he repeated the charge, telling CBS News that Obama’s re-election bid was “all about division and attack and hatred…it’s designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger.”
Romney was reacting to Vice President Joe Biden’s comment on Tuesday that Republicans, by pushing to “unchain” Wall Street, would “put y’all back in chains.” Biden made the remark Tuesday to a racially mixed audience in Danville, Va., and Republicans have suggested Biden’s remark was an allusion to slavery. Biden said he misspoke, intending to use the word “unshackled,” a term Republicans have adopted in the past in reference to regulatory burdens. The Obama campaign publicly defended Biden and called Romney’s statements “unhinged” — a word that the Romney campaign once used to refer to Newt Gingrich.
“The truth is that during the course of these campaigns, folks like to get obsessed with how something was phrased even if everybody personally understands that’s not how it was meant,” Obama told People magazine. “That’s sort of the nature of modern campaigns and modern coverage of campaigns. But I tell you, when I’m traveling around Iowa, that’s not what’s on people’s minds.”
If Obama was on the defensive about Biden’s remarks, Romney’s campaign was livid and went into attack mode. “Whether it’s accusing Mitt Romney of being a felon, having been responsible for a woman’s tragic death or now wanting to put people in chains, there’s no question that because of the President’s failed record he’s been reduced to a desperate campaign based on division and demonization,” Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said in a statement.
But there were tactics behind the Romney camp’s outrage. Obama himself didn’t actually say anything of the things Saul referenced. His deputy campaign manager made the felon remark (which she denied was an accusation), and an allied super PAC appeared to link Bain Capital to a woman succumbing to cancer. It was Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid who used cynical political jujitsu to sustain the discussion of Romney’s tax returns. Obama did get in on the action Tuesday by dropping a tired reference to Romney’s dog.
One Romney aide suggested the President was at fault for sanctioning personal attacks on the presumptive Republican nominee. “This is a pattern. It’s been building for weeks now,” says the aide. The candidate agrees. “His campaign and his surrogates have made wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the Presidency,” said Romney.
But really this is political business as much as it is personal outrage. Obama has benefited from the favorable impression voters have of him as a person; his likability has lifted him above Romney in most recent polls despite frustration with his handling of the economy. The Romney campaign is making a concerted effort to wrap Obama in his campaign’s rhetoric, because forcing Obama to take responsibility for his campaign’s accusations is a way to shatter the positive image the president has crafted and which still sustains him. It also sharpens the contrast Romney wants to draw between Obama as a ruthless political tactician and himself as a patriotic Mr. Fix-it.
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Criticizing Obama is also a way to change the subject. Now that Paul Ryan has been chosen as Romney’s running mate, Democrats are ramping up their Medicare attacks. “They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program,” Obama said Wednesday in Dubuque. “That means seniors would not have the guarantee of Medicare.” Denouncing Obama deflects that discussion, which has already been problematic for Romney. The candidate repeatedly dodged reporters’ questions Monday about the substantive differences between his Medicare plan and Ryan’s.
Romney is pledging a debate of ideas, and characterizing his opponent as underhanded and calculating may help Romney claim the mantle of a high-minded candidate. But the negative attacks against Obama mean that the promise of a new and nobler style of campaign ended in a matter of hours. From here on in, expect the outrage to crank into overdrive.