Negative campaign rhetoric begins early, predicted on a massive scale
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Will there be blood?
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum predicted as much Thursday morning about the upcoming general election campaign, but each side was already in attack mode this week.
The old custom of a convention "truce" has all but bitten the dust. Instead of politely ducking out and taking a vacation while the Republican National Convention nominated its candidate for president, President Barack Obama was all over the news this week, on the road for a two-day campaign swing through college campuses, even as the White House went on the attack Thursday, issuing a point by point rebuttal of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's Wednesday night speech criticizing the president's performance on the economy. And Vice President Joe Biden had planned to campaign in Tampa Monday but was deterred by the threat of Hurricane Isaac.
Mr. Obama may be the first sitting president in recent history to directly respond from the White House during convention week to the opposing party's campaign slings, but Mr. Romney will also be campaigning in swing states next week, when the Democrats hold their convention in Charlotte, N.C.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush vacationed at his ranch in Texas during the Democratic National Convention while surrogates worked on his behalf, providing rebuttal to various Democratic lines of attack, and the Bush campaign didn't run ads during the opposing party's convention. During the GOP convention that year, John Kerry appeared at one previously scheduled American Legion event, and in 2000, Al Gore stayed in North Carolina during the RNC gathering. In 1996 and 1992, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush both took vacations to Jackson, Wyo., during the RNC and DNC, respectively.
But the tradition of convention-week comity began to crack in 2008, when Arizona Sen. John McCain campaigned during the Democratic National Convention. He blocked Mr. Obama's post-convention bump in the polls by announcing Sarah Palin as his running mate the day after the DNC ended.
Mr. Obama planned to campaign during the 2008 GOP convention but Hurricane Gustav prompted him to cancel events on the first two days of the GOP gathering in St. Paul, Minn. He resumed campaigning on the last two.
These days, neither candidate has a choice. With the conventions pushed back to summer's end, before and after the Labor Day weekend, there's no time for a breather before campaigning begins in earnest.
So, both sides have unleashed the negative rhetoric -- although both sides claim they're merely pointing out the facts.
During the convention, one after another, the GOP speakers launched barbs.
There was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, who characterized Mr. Obama as being distracted by trivial things instead of engaged in national issues.
There was Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens: "We know that the Constitution limits federal power, but President Obama clearly believes those limits just get in his way."
There was Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio: "President Obama has been so driven to advance his big government ideology that he has abandoned the daily economic work that a government must do."
Mr. Santorum's Tuesday speech was among the most scathing. In it, he said Mr. Obama governs as if he is above the law and that his policies have undermined traditional families and weakened schools.
Though Mr. Ryan's speech at the Tampa Bay Times Forum drew the most attention, it wasn't the most scathing anti-Obama attack of the convention.
"What Paul Ryan did was lay out the case in very broad strokes, one of which was playing out the dismal record of the Obama administration and pointing to a future of optimism," said GOP media strategist Charlie Gerow, who was in Tampa. "I don't think it was rancorous or negative. It was plain down the middle, what you would expect at any national convention."
However, Mr. Ryan's speech triggered a flood of fact-checkers citing inaccuracies. Even Fox News joined The Associated Press, CNN, The Washington Post and other media outlets pointing out the errors. Mr. Ryan's speech was "an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech," said Fox News commentator Sally Kohn.
The Obama White House hit back, too, during its daily briefing when spokesman Jay Carney went through specific assertions made by Mr. Ryan and pointed out why each one was false.
"Perhaps when the facts aren't on your side, you ignore the facts."
Ironically, "the Obama campaign has stolen the Bush 2004 campaign playbook and the Romney campaign has stolen the Clinton 1992 playbook," said John Brabender, Mr. Santorum's former campaign manager and media strategist. Mr. Romney is taking a page from Clinton campaign manager James Carville who said, famously, "It's the economy, stupid." Bill Clinton repeatedly pointed to George H.W. Bush's failure to fix the economy, and Mr. Romney is taking the same approach, Mr. Brabender said. On the other hand, "Bush focused on discrediting John Kerry, just as Mr. Obama has been trying to talk about Mr. Romney's taxes or how he spends his money."
Mr. Santorum's remarks about the coming "bloodbath" didn't surprise Mr. Brabender. "I don't think he meant it was going to be in any way one-sided. It was that way during the primary campaign, with millions of attack ads coming from all sides."
Indeed, Mr. Santorum appeared to be criticizing a fellow Republican -- Mr. McCain's performance in 2008. "I debated Mitt Romney," Mr. Santorum said. "I can tell you, he is no John McCain. He is not going to pull punches. He is going to go right back at Barack Obama just like he went right back at me."
What was also perhaps unprecedented was Mr. Carney, a White House official on the government payroll, appearing to be acting as a campaign surrogate to rebut false claims. "Usually this sort of thing is handled by a campaign secretary, and this is a very fine line for the White House to walk," said John Hudak, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution. "But a lot of Ryan's speech was about attacking the president's record and his policies -- attacks on the White House -- so the White House felt it was within its rights to respond."
As usual, the 24-hour media cycle is in part to blame for the high level of negative chatter on the blogosphere Thursday responding to Mr. Ryan's speech. "In the very recent past, in 2004 and 2008, the media has been slow to criticize the messaging from a campaign, but this year, they stepped up in a way they haven't before," challenging Mr. Ryan's claim that the president was to blame for a factory closure in Wisconsin and for Standard & Poor's downgrading of the federal government's credit rating last summer during the debt ceiling crisis (the rating agency specifically cited gridlock in Congress as the reason).
This convention week's slugfest will likely be repeated next week, and the week after that, and up until Election Day. Given the closeness of the race and the unusually small number of undecided voters, each side will have no choice but to go negative --very negative -- eschewing the soft-focus advertising that usually starts out a race.
"This is an electorate that is very familiar with both candidates," Mr. Hudak said. "They've both been running for president for six years, at least, and warm and fuzzy biographical ads are not going to change minds. Not many people knew President Obama until convention week in 2008, or John Kerry four years before that, but voters know him and Mr. Romney, too, very well, so each campaign will have no choice but to use negative advertising -- because it's probably the only approach that will be effective this year."
First Published August 31, 2012 12:00 am