The Nastiest Campaign Ever? Or Just The Pettiest?

Maybe the real problem this year isn't that the campaign is unduly nasty, but that it's incredibly petty.

The past several weeks has seen much discussion among political pundits and the like about the nasty turn that the campaign for President has taken of late, ranging from an ad accusing Mitt Romney of somehow being responsible for the death of a man’s wife, Joe Biden’s clearly racially charged “chains” remark, the President making jokes about Seamus the Romney dog, and Mitt Romney going after the President and basically calling him a Chicago thug. James Joyner and myself have both written about it here at OTB, and it’s been a daily topic of discussion on the cable news networks. Former Obama and Hillary Clinton campaign aide Blake Zeff, though, pushes back against the idea that 2012 has been any nastier than any other recent race:

“A most poisonous campaign.” “How low can they go?” “The nastiest campaign ever!”

It’s suddenly become de rigueur to complain that we’re now witnessing the nastiest presidential campaign of all time. Pearl-clutching chroniclers — surely determined to cover the finer points of the Romney gubernatorial record and adjudicate differences on tax policy, if the campaigns would just let them — are horrified that one candidate teased another about his pet-care philosophy; that the other has focused more on attacking his rival’s economic performance than his own attributes; and that a high-ranking official alleged that a candidate benefited from a legal tax write-off strategy.

The truth? Not only is this not the most negative campaign ever — it’s not the most negative campaign of your lifetime, unless you happen to be three years old.

Back in 2008, when I was an Obama spokesman in the general election, and worked in the Clinton war room during the primary, we were dogged by the same cries. The Obama and McCain camps were chastised by the late David Broder for our “personal bitterness and negativism.” Cindy McCain told us we were waging the “dirtiest campaign in American history.” And John McCain was running such a “fiercely negative” campaign, we were told, that his fellow Republicans were allegedly very worried about it.

The primary was no different. People forget now, but back then the Clinton campaign was accused of mud-slinging and dividing the party so often that we started a short-lived web site called AttackTimeline.com to chronicle the incoming negative charges we constantly received from our opponents. The purpose: to prove that we, too, were victims of all this negativity, so don’t put the blame squarely on us. And this was a primary.

Zeff has a point, of course, the 2008 campaign was pretty vicious, so was the 2004 campaign, and 2000, and 1992 (like Zeff I don’t remember the 1996 campaign being overly negative, but I also don’t remember it being all that interesting either. Going further back into American history, one can point to any number of points in history where a political campaign was incredibly negative in ways that would shock us even today. In 1800, former friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, through their campaigns and surrogates, traded some of the most outlandish charges against each other that we’ve ever seen in a Presidential campaign. The election of 1828, which elected Andrew Jackson to the first of two terms, was pretty vicious as well. The election of 1860 was about as vicious an election as you’d expect on the eve of the Civil War. Even in the middle of that war, in 1864, Lincoln’s bid for re-election was marked by attacks by his former General, George McClellan, and his supporters that not only attacked the President’s war record but personally demeaning to Lincoln himself. So, to say that this election is the nastiest ever is, perhaps, just a little bit of an exaggeration.

For example, here’s what negative ads might’ve looked like during the Election Of 1800:

Perhaps the reason that people think that contemporary campaigns are so bad is because, thanks to the mass media, they are so much more in our face than they used to be in the past. There was no cable news coverage of the Election of 1800, for example, and people had to rely on newspapers and pamphleteers. When the campaign is on your television, your radio, and the Internet 365/24/7 it’s very easy to think that things have never been worse, even when that isn’t necessarily true.

Kevin Drum picks up what the real problem with the 2012 election, and many of our recent elections actually is. It’s not that their nasty, it’s that they are incredibly petty:

Personally, what strikes me most about the 2012 campaign isn’t its viciousness per se, but — how do I put this? It’s somehow more petty in its viciousness than I remember in the past. Taken as a whole, the 2012 campaign has had plenty of days in the gutter, but the individual attacks all seem pretty forgettable. So far, anyway, there are no Swift boats, no Jeremiah Wright, no inventing the internet, no Gennifer Flowers, no Willie Horton. It’s all small potatoes: Obama gutting work requirements for welfare, Romney killing people’s wives, etc. Not very edifying stuff, to be sure, and I’m sure it has its intended effect when this stuff is running 24/7 in the entire state of Ohio. Still, there’s nothing that will ever make it into the Top Ten annals of dirty campaigning. It’s the volume of new crap that’s striking, along with the relentless daily invention of obscure new lies, not the viciousness of any one piece of it.

I think Drum is on to something here. Notwithstanding all the talk about “big picture” elections, the truth of the matter is that most of what we’ve been dealing with in this election from the beginning, including during the Republican primary, has been incredibly dumb stuff. Whether its Gardisil shots in Texas, the story of Seamus the dog, the story about Obama once eating dog meat as a child, or the endless obsessive attention paid to what are actually relatively minor and inconsequential gaffes (Etch-A-Sketch anyone?), the “big issues” of this campaign have been mostly mindless stupidity. Rather than talking about the impending “Fiscal Cliff” or the important foreign policy issues that are facing this nation, we’re spending our time talking about things that are, quite literally, a distraction. It’s not so much that the campaign is distastefully nasty, then, as it is that it’s just depressingly boring. And we’ve got another two-and-a-half months of it to live through.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    Will I get a return on my investment in social security? Will I have Medicare, or will I get screwed?

    The things I worry about are so silly…

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Has a Presidential administration ever accused (or at least intimated) the opponent of a felony? I suspect not. First of all, it was a long time before Presidents were publicly and actively running for office or re-election. My recollection is that most of the crazy stuff in U.S. history came from partisan newspapers, and gradually, more and more, from local/regional politicians not directly connected to the POTUS.

  3. Blue Shark says:

    Mitt R-money is the first major party candidate who is a congenital liar, may have committed a felony for lying on this business forms to the SEC, has or has not committed voter fraud involving residency, and engaged in rapacious capitalist business practices that cost tens of thousands of American’s their jobs and, yes, healthcare.

    …If asking questions about these unprecedented flaws is “petty” so be it.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    “ranging from an ad accusing Mitt Romney of somehow being responsible for the death of a man’s wife, Joe Biden’s clearly racially charged “chains” remark, the President making jokes about Seamus the Romney dog, and Mitt Romney going after the President and basically calling him a Chicago thug”

    A list as fair and balanced as Fox News. Are you sure you aren’t trying out for a job there?

    Somehow you managed to miss such items as Romney lying through his teeth as to Obama’s Welfare waivers, Romney accusing Obama of cutting Medicare when Ryan has proposed making the same cuts, and the Republican operatives accusing Obama of leaking classified info for politcal gain.

  5. stonetools says:

    with all due respect, the most important issue for voters is not foreign policy, or the deficit, or the Fiscal Cliff-its unemployment. Romney/ Ryan has no strategy to reduce unemployment, so they are not talking about unemployment.
    The Congressional Republicans won’t let the Administration do anything about unemployment , so the Administration isn’t talking about unemployment either.

    The Federal Reserve Bank isn’t doing anything about unemployment, despite its mandate to maintain full employment, so no movement there either.
    So gridlock all round on the big issue.

    On FP, the public’s position can be summed up in two sentences:

    1. Lets GTFO of Afghanistan.
    2. Let’s STFO of any other wars.

    James, Doug et al. may want to discuss the nuances of Syria and our relationship with China, but the public doesn’t care about any of that .

    As for the Fiscal Cliff and deficits, the public saw enough wankery on the issue last year to last the public a lifetime. They don’t believe either side is serious.
    So that leaves the election about candidate personality, and here we are.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Meh. The campaign really hasn’t yet gotten all that nasty. Just wait until October, especially if Obama’s internal polling looks bleak.

    As far as the sheer pettiness of it all, that’s merely part and parcel of the big slide. Exhibit A to the lowest common denominator principle. It’ll get a lot worse in 2016. Especially if Romney is president. Then it’ll get a lot worse in 2020. So on, so forth.

  7. bk says:

    Oh god, here we go again with Doug’s daily “sure, every Romney ad is a lie, but Biden said ‘chains’, so BOTH SIDES DO IT”.

  8. Herb says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    “Just wait until October, especially if Obama’s internal polling looks bleak.”

    You know something we don’t? This isn’t the first time you’ve talked about some kind of October surprise Obama is going to pull out “if his internal polling” reveals….something.

    What do you think he’s going to do?

  9. al-Ameda says:

    To me, the real surprise this year is that for the first time since 1996, the Democratic Party has decided to play hardball. Not withstanding the tame “Biden Chains” and “jokes about Seamus” stuff, which are not hardball, the Obama team has not been laying back, they’ve been going after Republicans. It’s good to see.

    People who expect to have an academic-type of debate about the Ryan-Romney Plan to privatize Medicare while reducing taxes are unrealistic. That stuff is for political junkies and insiders like the folks here at OTB. An average person – one who is already very likely to vote – does not care about the details and is not going to change his or her mind based on those kind of facts – sad to say, but true. This is all about increased turnout – and I’m not sure that facts are necessary, but I am pretty sure that negative campaigning is the most cost-efficient method to increase turnout, otherwise the candidates would not spending their hundreds of millions of dollars on negative advertising.

  10. Septimius says:

    @Blue Shark:

    Mitt R-money is Bill Clinton was the first major party candidate who is a congenital an adjudicated liar, may have committed a felony for lying on this business forms to the SEC, violently raping Juanita Brodderick, has or has not committed voter fraud involving residency, election fraud by accepting campaign contributions from Chinese nationals and engaged in rapacious capitalist business practices that cost tens of thousands of American’s their jobs and, corruption including selling pardons and, yes, healthcare numerous other scandals that brought dishonor to his office.

    Fixed that for you.

  11. rudderpedals says:

    Are we allowed to talk about taxation or health care for Americans while Mr. Romney’s money is out of the country?

  12. Just Me says:

    I am not sure if the election is the most of anything.

    I think it often feels that way because of the media coverage. An election is no longer the main news networks or the 24/7 news channels, but the fact that there is a constant barrage of attacks not only on TV but also on the internet.

    A lot of the ads created by campaigns and other organizations are meant for the internet only (this is clear by their length). There is just a saturation point where even a mild accusation or point feels in some ways like it is over the top.

    I can remember far more nastiness as far as attacks in other elections-in some ways this one feels kind of tame at least in content.

  13. @stonetools:

    It is a strange strategy. Romney has tried to “focus on the economy” by observing that the recovery is not rapid. When asked what he’d do about it, he can’t tell you, and wants you to wait until you elect him:

    Romney advisers confirm it: We’re running a `just trust me’ campaign

    Just like we trusted Bush/Cheney to keep government small, create a safe recovery, and reduce the debt.

    This totally a set-up for a repeat.

  14. Herb says:

    @Septimius:

    “Fixed that for you.”

    So…um….Mitt Romney is just like Bill Clinton then?

    Don’t tell all the Republicans who are going to vote for him…..

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @Herb:

    It is a strange strategy. Romney has tried to “focus on the economy” by observing that the recovery is not rapid. When asked what he’d do about it, he can’t tell you, and wants you to wait until you elect him:
    Romney advisers confirm it: We’re running a `just trust me’ campaign
    Just like we trusted Bush/Cheney to keep government small, create a safe recovery, and reduce the debt.
    This totally a set-up for a repeat.

    And, this reminds me very much of Nixon’s campaigning on his “Secret Plan” to end the war in Vietnam – which did not exist, but had the same “trust me” aspect.

    The difference here it seems to me is the very public Ryan budget plan, which Romney supports. The Obama campaign has to draw those two out on that plan. If they can, the “trust me” campaign will be toast.

  16. Septimius says:

    @Herb:

    So, um, no. I just enjoy pointing out the rampant hypocrisy of liberals who supported Bill Clinton through all of his scandals, but are OUTRAGED by Mitt Romney’s “sins.”

    He’s the gift that keeps on giving.

  17. @Septimius:

    For what it’s worth, I was still a Republican in Clinton’s time, and while I disliked his personal morality, I liked the moderation of his administration. I liked the way things were going too well to change.

    I like Obama’s moderation as well. I’d rather Congress worked with him for pragmatic problem solving. If the Republicans put forth something that was a rational compromise, and got it on the President’s desk, I’d be on board. Until then, show votes on extreme plans don’t cut it.

  18. Lomax says:

    “2016”
    Read the book, see the movie.
    Go to 2016 website for more information about this important event.

  19. Herb says:

    @Septimius:

    “I just enjoy pointing out the rampant hypocrisy of liberals”

    Well, that’s useful….

  20. KariQ says:

    @Herb:

    So…um….Mitt Romney is just like Bill Clinton then?

    This would explain a lot. I couldn’t stand Bill Clinton, either.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    He’s the gift that keeps on giving.

    Considering his gaffes, his Al Gore-like personality, his poorly run campaign, and his VP pick, certainly the Obama team must think of him as a gift…

  22. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “For the past half-dozen or so election cycles, the presidential election has been an endless parade of doofuses–each one more hapless than the previous one.”

    An anonymous friend of mine (but I think he’s on to something)

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