Frank Rich On Negative Campaigning

Barack Obama has made his mistakes as a politician and as a president, but here is one thing he indisputably did right: pummel Mitt Romney with a volley of attack ads once Romney sewed up the Republican nomination. Obama was playing by the rules, honoring historical precedent in both parties, and pursuing the one must-do task before him in an election year (winning). And yet from the blowback that erupted once his Bain ad hit the fan—from his own camp, from the pious arbiters of Beltway manners, and, of course, from his adversaries—you’d think Romney was an innocent civilian under assault by a drone. What was everyone so shocked about? As far back as August 2011, Obama’s political hit men were signaling the inevitable to Politico: The president, “resigned to running for reelection in a glum nation,” had little choice “but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.” The Bain ad that Obama ran last month was no surprise either: It followed the template of those used by Ted Kennedy against Romney in the Massachusetts Senate race of 1994. (The ads helped: Kennedy won by seventeen points.) If anything, Obama’s variation on the theme is less nasty than Newt Gingrich’s Bain-bashing ad during the GOP primaries. Nonetheless, the bipartisan civility police swooped down in full force to cry foul, with Cory Booker’s charge that attack ads are “nauseating” typifying the moralistic tone. “What ever happened to hope and change?” asked Bob Schieffer of CBS News. He apparently forgot that even the sainted Obama hope-and-change campaign of 2008 spent heavily on negative ads—more than the ­McCain campaign did. (Does no one recall the exquisite “Seven,” in which the old hero was presented as a doddering doofus unable to name the number of houses he owned?) David Brooks lamented that Obama’s negativity was “self-destructive” and left him “looking conventional.” Peggy Noonan gloated: “The president opened his campaign with a full-fledged assault on his opponent. This is a bad sign in an incumbent!”

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