So Much For The “Big Picture” Election
Yesterday it became clear that the Presidential campaign is headed into the mud.
When Paul Ryan entered the race on Saturday as Mitt Romney’s running mate on Saturday, we were told that we were now moving into a “big picture” election where the candidates would be discussing serious issues like the role of government, entitlements, and America’s ongoing fiscal problems. Whether or not that’s what the voters want, though, it sure sounded better than what we’ve seen in the race for the previous month or so, which was dominated by things like an ad saying Mitt Romney killed a lady, Harry Reid claiming to have secret knowledge of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, and the President and his challenger trading terms like “Romney Hood” and “Obamaloney.” The prospect of a more serious campaign was something that seemed to appeal to many people. Inevitably, though, we’ve quickly gotten back to the nonsense, with yesterday being perhaps one of the nastiest days on the campaign trail, on both sides, to date.
It started with a speech by Vice-President Biden in southern Virginia, which drew a quick rebuke from the Romney campaign:
(CBS News) DANVILLE, Va. — Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday told a diverse crowd here, including many African-Americans, that presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney would “put you all back in chains” by unshackling Wall Street.
Biden told more than 800 ticketed supporters that Romney wants to repeal the financial regulations enacted after the Wall Street crash of 2008. “He’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules – unchain Wall Street!” Biden said. Then he added, “They’re going to put you all back in chains” with their economic and regulatory policies.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Biden’s comments “are not acceptable in our political discourse and demonstrate yet again that the Obama campaign will say and do anything to win this election. President Obama should tell the American people whether he agrees with Joe Biden’s comments.”
Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager of the Obama campaign, called Saul’s statement “faux outrage. She said on MSNBC that Biden was “using a metaphor to talk about what’s going to happen” if Romney is elected and financial reform is repealed. and “we have no problem with those comments” in their full context.
The Obama campaign later put out a statement that said Biden’s comment was a variation on comments Republicans have made about unshackling the private sector, and his own frequent references to the need to unshackle the middle class. “Today’s comments were a derivative of those remarks, describing the devastating impact letting Wall Street write its own rules again would have on middle class families,” the campaign said.
Here’s the video of Biden’s remarks:
Biden spoke again about the remarks later in the day, but it was the original remarks in Danville that really evoked the ire of the Romney campaign and many on the right. Rudy Giuliani, for example, took the opportunity to question Biden’s mental fitness to hold office. Sarah Palin said that the comments should be reason for Obama to boot Obama off the Democratic ticket. Now, both of these comments are patently ridiculous. It’s been a favorite meme on the right to ridicule the Vice-President’s intelligence and put forward the, largely false, argument that he is a political liability for the President. Despite the fact, though, that Joe Biden, has a proclivity to speak without thinking at times and may well be the King of Gaffes at the moment, much of that rhetoric is overblown and Giuliani and Pain are being patently ridiculous. At the same time, though, Biden’s rhetoric was ugly and over the top, as Paul Mirengoff puts it:
To be sure, the king of saying “literally” wasn’t speaking literally. Even at his most wound up, Clueless Joe doesn’t believe that Republicans want to enslave African-Americans. Biden was just using a figure of speech. But it was an extremely distasteful one in any context, and amounts to playing the race card when delivered to a black audience.
So once the Romney campaign called Biden on his gaffe, the vice president should, at a minimum, have said that, of course he doesn’t think Republicans will put anyone in chains but that their policies will work to the significant disadvantage of the middle class, the poor, etc. That is, of course, unless Biden didn’t commit a gaffe, but rather intended to play the race card.
Is that last part true? I’ll leave that for the individual to judge, but the fact that he was talking about “chains” in front of an African-American audience surely could not have been a coincidence.
Meanwhile, out in Iowa President Obama slipped references to Romney putting the family dog Seamus on the roof of the family car during one vacation road trip into his stump speech, and Mitt Romney took the opportunity to rip into the President for what he claimed was a campaign meant to divide the country:
Mitt Romney used a tough new campaign speech to personally blast the Obama campaign on Tuesday, saying comments earlier in the day from Vice President Biden are “what an angry and desperate presidency looks like.”
“Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago,” Romney said while campaigning in Ohio.
Romney was responding to Biden’s suggestion that the GOP ticket’s economic policies would “put y’all back in chains.”
Romney repeatedly and harshly criticized Team Obama for the remarks.
“His campaign and his surrogates have made wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency. Another outrageous charge came a few hours ago in Virginia. And the White House sinks a little bit lower,” Romney said.
“This is an election in which we should be talking about the path ahead, but you don’t hear any answers coming from President Obama’s reelection campaign. That’s because he’s intellectually exhausted, out of ideas and out of energy. And so his campaign has resorted to diversions and distractions, to demagoguing and defaming others. This is an old game in politics; what’s different this year is that the president is taking things to a new low.”
Romney’s remarks echo those of his campaign spokeswoman, who earlier in the day characterized Biden’s remarks as representing a “new low.”
Ben Smith comments on how the campaign went so far off course yesterday:
[T]he campaign has reached its ugliest, most fevered moment. President Obama himself invoked an old story about Romney strapping a dog to the roof of his car. The Chairman of the Republican National Committee shot back with a jibe about Obama having eaten dog as a schoolboy in Indonesia. Biden suggested that Republicans want to put voters back “in chains.” Romney demanded Obama takes his campaign of “division and anger and hate back to Chicago.” Obama’s spokesman called him “unhinged.” The atmosphere bristled with conflict, Twitter spilled over with gleeful vitriol, and the campaign reached the sort of fevered political moment when it feels like anything can happen.
But if we didn’t predict this moment, we should have. The logic of President Obama’s campaign has always been, as a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House told me this time last year, that “unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.”
Romney’s strategy had been different: To simply stay out of Obama’s way as he fell. The race, his aides promised, would be a referendum on Obama; Romney was an obviously acceptable alternative, a success in the private and public sector who had avoided being pinned down on policy and, whatever his flaws, could hardly be labeled extreme. Obama, the focus-group tested story went, was a nice guy out of his depth. Romney was the solution.
The ferocity of Obama’s assault on Romney’s character had already rattled this plan. On June 18, after a top Obama aide suggested that he could be a “felon,” Romney dropped the “nice guy” line.
“[Romney] has said Obama’s a nice fellow, he’s just in over his head,” an adviser told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins. “But I think the governor himself believes this latest round of attacks that have impugned his integrity and accused him of being a felon go so far beyond that pale that he’s really disappointed. He believes it’s time to vet the president. He really hasn’t been vetted; McCain didn’t do it.”
The last month has alternated between jibes and Romney’s central logic of focusing on the economy, the only obstacle between the campaigns and a full-on mudfight. The nomination of Paul Ryan has, finally, removed that obstacle. Ryan’s nomination instantly turned the race from a referendum into a choice, and gave Romney his own parallel to the economy: The Ryan budget.
The campaigns had not been, to this point, parallel, but now they’re dark mirror images
I don’t know why anyone is really surprised by this. All of the talk about high-minded “big picture” elections makes the talking heads smile, but the reality is that this is politics, and in politics you fight to win. Given that we’re dealing with an election where there are, quite clearly, a limited number of voters to fight over and a limited number of states to capture to win that 270 Electoral Vote majority, it’s not at all surprising that both campaigns, their surrogates, and the SuperPACs working on their behalf would be going into attack mode this early and this darkly. You can expect more of this at the respective party conventions starting in two weeks, with appointed surrogates on the dais whipping up their partisan crowds with wild and largely unsubstantiated claims about the other party. This is what we have to look forward to, and this is why so many people are giving up on politics altogether.
Civility? You thought they’d be civility and high minded debate? Wow, are you naive pundit class.