Memo To Media: Obama's Harsh Campaign Tone Is Not Actually A New Thing, Okay?

I'm typically a big fan of Molly Ball's work for the Atlantic. But I'm afraid that in explicating this week's private equity-Bain Capital brouhaha that spiraled into a internecine bit of mixed-messaging spatter between the White House and Newark Mayor Cory Booker -- gripping the fluttery hearts of many inside the Beltway -- she fell into a trap. At issue here is the Obama campaign and whether its negativity is "new."

Many a requiem has been written for "that hopey-changey thing," as Sarah Palin so memorably dubbed it. And to be sure, much of the griping about the president's harsh tone is the disingenuous phony outrage of Republicans who would prefer not to be its targets. But as Obama embarks in earnest on his second presidential campaign, deliberately invoking the echoes of 2008 as he does so, the contrast with his old image is especially stark.

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.

Are President Barack Obama and his campaign taking a "harsh tone?" A "brutal, no-holds-barred approach?" Oh, yes! But we turn, once again, to John Sides, who predicted in October that we'd soon be inundated with stories about this harshness and brutality, and warned that there would be some widespread 2008 amnesia:

Here’s a fun little quiz. What percentage of Obama’s television advertising during the 2008 campaign included an attack on John McCain? Well above 50%, according to research by the Wisconsin Advertising Project (pdf). And what percentage of statements by Obama or Obama spokespeople that were reported in the New York Times contained attacks on McCain? About 40%, according to the the book Attack Politics by Emmett Buell and my former colleague and Monkey Cage contributor Lee Sigelman. (The comparable figure for McCain was 50%.) Now, according to Buell and Sigelman’s data, Obama’s campaign was less negative than many other past presidential campaigns, but it was hardly just hopey-changey.

Some commentators seem to assume or imply that Obama’s 2008 message of unity and bipartisanship meant that he didn’t “go negative” in the heat of that campaign. He did. And he will.

Not judging anyone! (Where would I be, after all, without the big, loud, stupid cruelty of American politics?) These are just facts. As Mitt Romney says, "Politics ain't beanbag." (Actually, Mitt Romney is better known for trying to say that and failing all the time, probably because his robot firmware is overclocking or something.)

Ball wrote: "These days, the Obama campaign distributes harshly critical research memos as a matter of course." The words "these days" are totally unnecessary!

At the risk of repeating myself, I think that the takeaway here is that promising to usher in some "new" and "conciliatory" era of politics is just a stupid promise to make, and hopefully, no one will be dumb enough to attempt it for a good long while.

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