From the beginning, the president's reelection campaign has taken a brutal, no-holds-barred approach that's sharply at odds with the conciliatory image that was the central predicate of Obama's entire pre-presidential political career. Whether or not the specific issue of Bain Capital ought to be off limits -- Booker has taken pains to clarify he doesn't think it should be -- there's no denying that Obama's 2012 campaign has seized every opportunity to turn the campaign toward sharply personal attacks of a type that the 2008-vintage Obama would surely have recoiled from. From Romney's treatment of his onetime pet dog to his high-school pranks to his income-tax rate, from the "war on women" to the "war on caterpillars," from "I like being able to fire people" to "I'm not concerned about the very poor," no potential controversy has been too petty, too rhetorically overblown or too out-of-context to be exploited to the hilt.
None of this is shocking -- it's how the game is played. But Obama once ostentatiously refused to play it. In June 2007, for example, when Obama's primary campaign distributed a memo titled "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)" detailing Clinton's connections to India, Obama publicly upbraided his staff, calling it "a dumb mistake" and "unnecessarily caustic." As the New York Times put it at the time, "The memo...raised quesitons about Obama's claims that he is above attack politics, which are epitomized by secretly distributing opposition research about a rival."
- Molly Ball "The New, Nasty Obama Campaign," at The Atlantic Online.
It may be nasty... but there's nothing "new" about the Obama campaign running vigorously against its opponents. If anything, Democrats are a bit relieved that a primary challenge never materialized, and that Mitt Romney is rising to every expectation of being the lousy campaigner we knew him to be.
This notion of that "hope and change" meant "nice and kind" is a fantasy that played mostly in the heads of Obama's most youthful, or most ardent, believers in 2008. The "can't we all just get along" arguments, the "he's the only one that can bring us together" notes of the pro-Obama hymn, were pretty (and about an inch deep), but they belied the reality that the Obama campaign's approach to beating Hillary Clinton was often brutal and desperate. And while his supporters moutheed words of Kumbayah and World Peace, privately they tended to gripe that Obama should be even rougher and tougher... hardly the notion of gentle niceness that was meant to be projected.
The "India memo" cited above (which is news to me, all these years later), is really more of a prime example of the hamhandedness and neophyte campaign mistakes of the Obama team, lessons they only seem to have partially learned and dealt with since. There is still the inordinate faith in his speeches, still the part where they get caught flat footed when news breaks that's out of their control, and still a kind of amateur quality to their attempts to go hard and mean against opponents. It's not that Mitt Romney's "Bain problem" should be off liits, it's that the message of that Bain problem needs to be spelled out correctly. As far as I can tell, the Obama people get it about half right (and then seem skittish when suggestions arise that they "go too far"). Still, they suffer from the liberal anxiety of being seen as actually believing the things they claim to find important.
The President would be in much rougher shape if Republicans had fielded a candidate - arguably Rick Santorum was closest - who actually appealed to a wide swath of voters who are actually indifferent to the President's record thus far. These are largely the sorts of people who found Hillary Clinton interesting as well - working class people, often white, but also many of color, as well as other distinct minorities, like gay men and lesbians. Instead, because he and Romney are fighting over a fairly narrow percentage of a small part of the overall electorate - educated, but non partisan voters in the middle and iupper middle class - things are bound to be ugly, and charges thrown around.
It's worth remembering that the 2008 campaign, against McCain had an undercurrent of ugliness that never entirely went away; it's mainly that it was so clear, early in October, that McCain was doomed that the Obama team was much better positioned to stay on the high road, and did so most of the time. It's clear that many conservatives, still, think that they lost because McCain didn't go harder and uglier; but at the same time, they are also the ones who complain, still, that Sarah Palin was subjected to all kinds of ugliness, from the press and from the Obama team. True or not, both ideas miss the point that McCain failed mainly because he was a lousy candidate, and Sarah Palin's selection was Example A (or possibly B after McCain flopped on the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008) of the kind of bad decision making that did him in. The obama didn't so much "play nice" as they simply ignored him, for close to a month. And this year, they may indeed get a similarly luxury option towards the middle of October as well. That won't be a win for "niceness", merely an expression of the reality that Republicans remain in spectacular disarray. There's nothing "new" about the Obama team's "meanness"; and still, nastiness may not define his presidential victories. Either of them.