Most Hyperbolic Campaign Ever!
The coming presidential election is—surely I don’t have to tell you—the Most Important Election in Our Lifetimes. (Or is it in My Adult Lifetime, or perhaps in the Past Two Centuries?) One reason for this is that our economy at the moment is the Worst Economy Since the Great Depression, and no wonder, because it followed what our president calls the Worst Financial Crisis in Our History.
Which has led to the country being As Divided as It’s Ever Been.
Don’t anybody mention the Civil War. And don’t mention, for that matter, the Panic of 1837 or of 1893, or even the recession of 1981–82. And forget about the election of 1980, or 1940 or ’32 or…well, 1860. Those events were important, of course, but nothing compared with events we’re a part of today, whatever they happen to be. We’re tops. Always.
I’m not sure whether this chronic aggrandizement—this steady insistence that whatever is happening now is the best or worst or greatest or in any case simply unprecedented—is just a consequence of the self-regard of baby boomers, who despite being proclaimed (usually by one of their own) the Best Educated Generation in History seem simultaneously to be the Most Historically Oblivious. The process whereby anything, no matter how banal, can be pointlessly intensified by the mere act of describing it is called Gingriching. The former speaker never heard a stupidity that wasn’t profoundly stupid or witnessed an act of incompetence that wasn’t stunningly so. This weakness for the intensifying adverb is a harmless tic in most people, though not in Gingrich. And among journalists and political professionals, who are supposed to know better, it’s particularly annoying and should be disqualifying.
Pundits and reporters usually abandon the long view during presidential election years as they grow more and more excited, but this year we’ve seen something new (for the first time in history!). The Gingriching has been prospective, applied to events that haven’t yet occurred. January had not clocked out before a writer for New York magazine announced that “the election of 2012 is going to be the most negative in American history.” Not to be outdone—and perhaps suffering a case of Gingrich Envy toward his fellow scribe at New York—a writer for Time magazine amped up, predicting “the ugliest, nastiest, dirtiest campaign in the history of American politics.” A bit further into the year, a columnist for the Washington Post said that the campaign’s mudslinging would require us “to take lots of showers.” Joining us there will be Andrew Sullivan, a blogger for a website called the Daily Beast, who told us in March: “I suspect we’re all going to have to take multiple showers once this is over.”
And hey! Who’s that over by the towel rack? Why, it’s Dan Rather! “I think by the time we finish with this campaign,” he drawled in his best Texas drawl, “it will be ugly enough to choke a blizzard.”
Like so many phenomena that are continually expected yet never quite materialize—the rise of American fascism, the comeback of the Chicago Cubs—reporters began to see the dirtiest campaign in history unfolding before their very eyes even though it wasn’t. It should go without saying, and usually does, that negative presidential campaigns are a long-standing tradition
in American politics. Cartoonists of the day routinely depicted Lincoln as a baboon and Grover Cleveland as a fat lecher, when really he was just fat. Jeffersonians accused John Adams of treason, and Adamites, perhaps closer to the mark, accused Jefferson of prowling the slave quarters. Andrew Jackson went to his grave believing his wife had been driven to hers by political opponents who publicly attacked her chastity.
Calling your opponent’s wife a slut—now that’s negative. This year’s version is a comment from a third-tier Democratic consultant, Hilary Rosen, who accused Mitt Romney’s wife of—close your eyes if it helps—being underemployed. “Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life,” Rosen told CNN’s dozens of viewers, touching off a chorus of Republican raspberries about dirty campaign tactics. (Rachel Jackson was a stay-at-home mom, too, but the Federalists never sunk low enough to accuse her of it.)
Reporters were so hard up for evidence of negativity that they even cited attacks that never occurred. In May the New York Times anchored its front page with this story: An independent fundraising group founded by a rich friend of Mitt Romney’s (does he have any other kind?) asked a dozen political consultants to come up with ideas for TV ads, and one wrote a memo proposing an ad featuring the president’s crazy pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The rich friend rejected the idea out of hand, the ad was never produced, and Romney himself called a hurried press conference hours after the Times story appeared to repudiate what hadn’t happened. Real bare-knuckles stuff.
“Obama and Mitt Romney,” the Associated Press reported in sorrow, “are on notice that there’s no statute of limitations on the issues or conduct that might be used against them.” An expert in crisis management told the AP, “If there were ever limits on what was fair game in a campaign, they’re largely history.” (History, of course, is a word that nowadays means “neither relevant nor interesting.”) Everyone involved was fanning himself and reaching for the smelling salts. The Times was especially priggish, warning both candidates away from “trash talk,” while offering no persuasive evidence that any had been spoken.
Even as Democrats were horrified at the ad-that-wasn’t, Republicans objected to Michael Moore–like ads for Obama that said Romney’s career in finance proved he was a heartless capitalist. The president, Romney complained, was suggesting “I’m not a good person, a good guy.” Even some of Obama’s allies—especially those who have grown rich in finance—condemned the ads. Newark mayor Cory Booker, who doesn’t work in finance himself but whose political career depends on those who do, called them “crap.”
At a news conference, reporters demanded an explanation from their president. Why was he distracting the American voter with personal attacks? “This is not a distraction,” Obama said. “This is what this campaign is about.”
Well, what if Obama is right—and not only right, but just? I’m guessing, but the surprise this year may well be that the tone of the 2012 campaign proves unusually gentle. In the modern era, the bitterest campaigns are provoked by elections in which not much is at stake—this, according to the same principle that governs disagreements among academics and intellectuals, where the feuds are so vicious because the stakes are so low. The 2012 election may not be the Most Important Since [Your Hyperbole Here], but the stakes aren’t low and the issues aren’t trivial, which is why we’ve likely seen the worst of the “personal attacks” already. If the Obamaites thought that casting Romney as a bad guy was a winning issue, they would have waited and raised it at a riper moment closer to November. Likewise, Republicans would be foolish to attack Obama personally, since every voter has a well-formed opinion of him by now, and most say they like him as a public man. And they know all about Reverend Wright.
No, Obama’s ads weren’t the first salvos of a dirty campaign but precisely what the president said they were: a proxy for the larger issue about the nature of capitalism, about “what kind of economy” the voters want. Will we have Obama’s soft socialism or a rougher and freer system that not only consumes wealth but also creates it? A campaign that turned on a dispute so vital would be not debased but elevated. It could easily be the Most Useful Campaign of My Adult Lifetime.