The umbrage industry is working overtime this week.
Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ presidential standard-bearer, is so outraged by President Obama’s attacks that he called the president a hater: “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”
On Wednesday afternoon, John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, re-tweeted an article by The Washington Post’s Dan Balz titled, “A most poisonous campaign.” McCain added his opinion: “I agree — it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
That’s the same conclusion that conservative commentator Brit Hume drew for his Fox News Channel viewers on Tuesday night. “This is about as ugly as I’ve seen it get,” he said.
Forgive me, but I’m not prepared to join this walk down Great Umbrage Street just yet. Yes, it’s ugly out there. But is this worse than four years ago, when Obama was accused by the GOP vice presidential nominee of “palling around with terrorists”? Or eight years ago, when Democratic nominee John Kerry was accused of falsifying his Vietnam War record?
What’s different this time is that the Democrats are employing the same harsh tactics that have been used against them for so long, with so much success. They have ceased their traditional response of assuming the fetal position when attacked, and Obama’s campaign is giving as good as it gets — and then some.
Balz is correct when he observes that the “most striking” element of the campaign is “the sense that all restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back.” In large part, this is because the Democrats are no longer simply whining about the other side being reckless and unfair: They are being reckless and unfair themselves.
The starkest example of this was an ad by Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, that implied that Romney was to blame for a woman’s death because her husband lost his job and health insurance when Bain Capital took over his steel mill. After an initial attempt to distance themselves from the super PAC — Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz comically claimed that she had “no idea” about the political affiliation of the group, which is run by two former Obama staffers — Democratic officials defended the ad’s accusation.
David Axelrod said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the ad “doesn’t cross the line” and then pivoted to declare that Romney “ought to be ashamed of himself” for running a false ad about Obama’s welfare policy.
It’s true that Romney is in a weak position to be complaining that the other side has been mean and nasty. He won the nomination by eviscerating his rivals with negative ads and accusations, and an ad his team aired last week that falsely claimed Obama was gutting welfare-to-work requirements injected racial politics into the campaign.
Also, many of the things Romney complains about are not unusual. Asked Wednesday morning by CBS News to explain why he thinks Obama has brought hatred into the campaign, Romney mentioned “the divisiveness based upon income, age, ethnicity and so forth. It’s designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger.” But that’s standard fare for a presidential campaign.
Obama and Vice President Biden dialed back their rhetoric on Wednesday, a day after Biden enraged the other side by telling a racially mixed audience in Virginia that Romney, by unshackling Wall Street, would “put y’all back in chains.”
Biden, at Virginia Tech on Wednesday, made sure to state that Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are “decent, honorable guys.” When Obama, in Iowa, mentioned Ryan, the crowd began to boo. “No, no, no,” Obama said. “I know him. He’s a good man, beautiful family. . . . I just happen to fundamentally disagree with his vision.”
But that doesn’t mean the Democrats are retiring their newly acquired incendiary devices. Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the campaign had “no problem” with Biden’s chains claim and said Obama “probably agrees with Joe Biden’s sentiments.” She derided the Romney side’s “faux outrage” and called the Republicans “hypocritical.”
Eight years ago, Cutter was a staffer on the Kerry campaign when the candidate was undone by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on his war record. Cutter, like other Democrats, learned a hard truth back then: Umbrage doesn’t win elections. Ruthlessness does.
Romney’s welfare gambit
Mitt Romney has finally figured out what to do with his vanquished rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. They will be his senior advisers on race relations.
Both gentlemen are eminently qualified for this role.
Santorum, you may recall, is the man who stood before a group of white Iowans in January and said: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.”
The candidate later attempted to argue that he had said “blah” rather than “black.”
Then came Gingrich, who in New Hampshire repeatedly dubbed President Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history.” Then, as now, Gingrich claimed his branding of the first black president with a program that disproportionately benefits African Americans had nothing to do with race.
Romney, admirably, had largely avoided such dog whistles during the primary campaign. Then, this week, he released an ad that abandoned the high ground, falsely claiming that Obama had “quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform.” It went on: “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”
I covered welfare reform in 1995 and 1996 as a congressional reporter for the Wall Street Journal, so I have followed the issue closely. And Romney’s assertion is, as has been widely documented, nonsense. Republican governors were among those requesting the recent waivers of the welfare work requirements, the “demonstration projects” that sparked Romney’s attack. Ron Haskins, who as a Ways and Means Committee staffer in the 1990s helped draft the welfare law for House Republicans, told NPR that “there’s no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.”
Why Romney is doing this is fairly plain. Romney polls best among white, working-class men, and he needs them to turn out in large numbers. Yet even at this late stage of the campaign, some of the GOP base remains suspicious of his candidacy — a suspicion that was encouraged by this week’s defense of “Romneycare” in Massachusetts by a Romney spokeswoman. And a poll by Pew Research Center last month found that nearly a quarter of white evangelicals were uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormonism. Romney therefore has incentive to revive the culture wars, which also accounts for his ad this week claiming Obama had launched a “war on religion.”
What makes Romney’s welfare gambit dispiriting is that, as a member of one of the most persecuted groups in American history, he knows more than most the dangers of fanning bigotry. Yet now he has injected into the campaign what has for decades been a standard device for race-baiting — a suspect move because welfare hadn’t been on the radar screen.
This is my problem with Romney: He is a decent man, but he’s too weak to stand up to the minority on his own side who are not. With the welfare attack, he is encouraging them. After releasing the ad claiming Obama would “just send you your welfare check,” Romney made the racial component official when his Republican National Committee hosted a conference call the next day with Gingrich, who, sure enough, reprised his food-stamp assault, telling reporters that “an honest discussion about dependency doesn’t mean you’re a racist.” But what about a dishonest discussion?
Thursday, the RNC hosted a call with Santorum, who did everything but revive the “welfare queen” attack of the 1980s.
“What the president wants to do is turn back the clock and do what he has done with every single other entitlement program in this country, which is increase the number of people on it, increase dependency,” Santorum charged. Add in Obama’s “contempt for the Constitution, his contempt for the rule of law,” Santorum added, “and this is a pattern that I think people are concerned about.”
The week before launching his welfare attack, Romney told a group of donors in Jerusalem that “culture makes all the difference” in the “dramatic, stark” disparity between Israeli wealth and Palestinian poverty.
Saeb Erekat, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called the statement “racist.”
Romney may not have meant it to be — but, as Santorum likes to say, this is a pattern.