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Why Obama-Romney Debate Will (Continue To) Be Vicious

Okay, I admit it: I was wrong. I was guilty of optimism. Also naiveté and ignorance. I predicted that the elevation of Paul Ryan would produce a more serious, substantive tone in the campaign.
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Okay, I admit it: I was wrong. I was guilty of optimism. Also naiveté and ignorance. I predicted in this space that the elevation of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would produce a more serious, substantive tone in the campaign.

Well, if anything, the campaign is closer to the new hit movie "The Campaign" than it was a week ago. All we're missing in reality is a punched baby and a candidate-only wrestling match.

What happened?

Well, for one, Ryan turns out, upon closer inspection, not to be a purifying ideologue, but rather a young, power-hungry, ladder-climbing trimmer -- less Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman and more Karl Rove and George W. Bush.

Ryan's principled opposition to big government and the welfare state would be more convincing, and give him more leverage and interest in serious debate, if he hadn't voted for a wide swath of the Bush-era expansion of big government and the welfare state. He even sought to shovel federal money back to Janesville, as his family business had done for generations.

He shifted to the right out of ideological remorse, I'll grant him that, but also out of calculation, once Barack Obama loomed on the horizon. Ryan has been amassing a war chest of his own ever since, and now has more money on hand than any other GOP member of the House. Looking back on it, it is remarkable that he didn't run for the Republican nomination.

This is no debate society guy. He is a 42-year-old spreadsheet-reading attack dog. That is all his budgets were about. He knew they couldn't become law. He rarely passed any laws. He wanted Tea Party cred, and to advertise himself to the conservative money.

So Ryan's one reason the conversation is mired in the mud. There are many others, some obvious, some not so. Here is a list of (some of) the reasons why this is still (as I have written before) the nastiest, most abrasive and personally accusatory presidential campaign in modern times:

ROMNEY -- In the GOP primary, Mitt Romney's main strategy was to destroy and discredit his foes. He crowed that there was "no whining in politics" after he tanked Newt Gingrich in Florida. He ran almost no positive advertising, advanced only vague positions and plans, and insisted on privacy or total control of the narrative around the most revealing parts of his life and career -- his family, his faith, his business, his wealth. He may as well have been the helmeted Robocop. That strategy continues: The campaign's main imperative is to accuse the president of a failure to create jobs and of success in wasting money.

OBAMA -- It's hard to sell uplift when 23 million people want and need full-time work, so the president is selling the fear that the Romney team will dismantle the cooperative social state that the country has erected on a bipartisan basis starting with the New Deal and Social Security in 1935. He has used Romney's secrecy about his wealth to cast the GOP nominee, in personal terms, as a selfish man who is blissfully ignorant about the way real people live their lives.

LIKABILITY -- One of the president's leading advantages remains the fact that he is well liked on a personal basis. Romney seems to be under no illusion that he can achieve a similar popularity, which, in its own way, is refreshing. He doesn't seem to need to be liked. But he can try to bring the other guy down to his level, which is what he is doing by accusing Obama of cheapening the discourse.

IMMEDIACY vs. COMPLEXITY -- The main problems we face are monstrously complex: the federal budget and national debt; global banks and finance; the U.S. health care system; global climate change. And yet our attention spans grow shorter, and the old conversations we called "civil discourse" are too slow for our nervous systems. A half-century ago, Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy -- two of the toughest customers ever in U.S. politics -- participated in a campaign and a series of televised debates that now seem impossibly polite and substantive, and lengthy, by today's fiber-optic standards. If you have no time, the easiest thing to do is to hurl an accusation.

MEDIA -- The more visual the media becomes, the more personal it becomes, and the more emotional. Measured, granular discourse about abstract topics fades and becomes all but impossible. One must try to make the other guy literally squirm, preferably on camera.

OUTSIDE MONEY -- The flood of unregulated, secretly sourced outside money coarsens the debate in two ways. First, the rules favor independent groups that make accusations, because they can't legally advocate for the election of a candidate. But they are free to trash anyone they want. And secret money doesn't have to take responsibility for harsh attacks. We may never know who was flinging the dirt, which gives rich donors more freedom to throw it.

BASE GAME -- The late Lee Atwater used to say that politics was a "base game." I don't think he ever bothered to examine the double meaning of that, but in any case, the idea was that you turned out your base. That was it. And in a split electorate, with a relative handful of undecided, the bias is toward hysteria. That is, excite your own base and depress turnout for the other guy. Romney for the first time has a positive way to do that: the base genuinely likes Ryan. But for the most part, the method will continue to be to attack. Same goes for the president -- and Ryan is good for that, too.

BIDEN vs. RYAN -- This match-up is going to be a sideshow of nastiness, with nearly a 30-year age difference between the two. You can already hear the GOP trying out the geriatric attacks on the vice president. Expect more.

NETHERWORLD -- Race and religion are sure to surface as corrosive forces. The Romney campaign accused Biden of using racial language in Virginia when he said that banks wanted to keep voters in "chains." But was that a way to decry the rise of race as a topic, or amplify it?

So much for my apology and explanation. And if you want to see what campaigns used to be like, check out an excerpt below of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Obama-Romney won't be anything like it.