The man who is schooled in the art of political destruction sits in a mahogany bar called Morton’s in Washington, D.C., a hangout for Republican consultants and lobbyists, and occasionally Congressman John Boehner, who meet to drink cocktails and talk shop under pale lights. A veteran of past presidential campaigns, and an associate of Mitt Romney’s team, he sips a stiff drink and talks about the imperatives of the 2012 presidential election.
“How are we going to punch him every fucking day in the face with the best fucking message that is going to drive voters in our favor?” he asks. The face in question is that of President Barack Obama. “How do we do it nationally? How do we do it in the states? How do we do it over and over and over? We’re not going to win the fight with a knockout punch; we’re going to win it with kidney blows that make your opponent so feeble that he can no longer raise his hands to cover his face.”
It’s going to get ugly—it always does, and this year, it already has. But by almost every measure, the 2012 election is going to be the most negative in the history of American politics. In this, the post-hope election, the promise of Obama’s last campaign has been turned inside out. For all the Republicans’ attempts to emphasize the virtues of austerity, the animating force of their party is hatred of Obama, his “Kenyan” ancestry, his “socialism” and Chicago associates, and the charge that he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed us in an anxious, alien landscape that doesn’t feel anything like what people used to call “America.”
Obama, of course, has a record he can point to, having saved the economy from collapse and salvaged the American car industry, not to mention acing Osama bin Laden, but the banner headline “We’re Not in the Great Depression!” isn’t a platform he can run on. The classic political question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is liable to be answered with an emphatic “No.” Over $15 trillion in debt, 8.5 percent unemployment, yawning structural problems, a severely gridlocked government—Obama is in a box, and there is only one way out of this box: the low road. In 2008, Obama won by pivoting off an unpopular incumbent with a hope-and-change message; now he’s the unpopular incumbent who must pivot off an even worse alternative—by the Obamans’ early calculations, Mitt Romney, a man he will paint as the coreless flip-flopper and rich plutocrat who made millions laying off American workers and who, in the Grand Guignol of the Republican-nomination process, was forced to take positions to the right of most Americans’. But after Romney’s tarring in South Carolina, they can now consider an even riper target: Newt Gingrich, whose personal “baggage” of ex-wives has sent pundits scrambling for novel new metaphors (more baggage than “a Rolling Stones tour, “American Airlines,” “Prince Akeem in Coming to America’”) both candidates are what Democratic operatives call a “target-rich environment.”
There’s plenty of ammo on both sides, but the biggest driver of this race is money. There is more money pouring into this election than ever, and it will necessarily mean more negative advertising by volume. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to corporate and union money, and eventually unlimited donations, has fathered the new breed of superpowered political-action committees, super-PACs, on both the left and the right. (Though the Republicans have been more successful at fund-raising thus far than Democrats, partially because Obama so vehemently opposed the Citizens United decision and his strategists are afraid the appearance of cronyism will damage the Obama brand.) Operated by veteran party apparatchiks, super-PACs are effectively mini-campaigns, employing more pollsters, more researchers, and more ad-makers for the purpose of going negative against the opposition—every fucking day. The rise of the super-PACs has completely reinvented the dynamics of negative campaigning, removing the consequences of factual inaccuracy by allowing the candidate a veneer of deniability, while multiplying a campaign’s effective manpower.
Whereas in 2008 there were about 25 opposition researchers, the engine of any negative campaign, working for Obama’s campaign, the pro-Obama super-PACs, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, together add another 50. Even more will be added on the right, with American Crossroads, the super-PAC co-founded by the negative-campaigning guru Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity all staffed up and sharpening their arrows, ready to ally with whomever the nominee is and his respective super-PAC. That means that instead of two campaigns running against each other, there will be six or more, a virtual arms race of donor money, most of it anonymous, with overall television advertising spending expected to reach $3 billion in 2012. The tsunami of slime will overtake the public sphere for months.