Barack Obama has made his mistakes as a politician and as a president, but here is one thing he indisputably did right: pummel Mitt Romney with a volley of attack ads once Romney sewed up the Republican nomination. Obama was playing by the rules, honoring historical precedent in both parties, and pursuing the one must-do task before him in an election year (winning). And yet from the blowback that erupted once his Bain ad hit the fan—from his own camp, from the pious arbiters of Beltway manners, and, of course, from his adversaries—you’d think Romney was an innocent civilian under assault by a drone. What was everyone so shocked about? As far back as August 2011, Obama’s political hit men were signaling the inevitable to Politico: The president, “resigned to running for reelection in a glum nation,” had little choice “but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.” The Bain ad that Obama ran last month was no surprise either: It followed the template of those used by Ted Kennedy against Romney in the Massachusetts Senate race of 1994. (The ads helped: Kennedy won by seventeen points.) If anything, Obama’s variation on the theme is less nasty than Newt Gingrich’s Bain-bashing ad during the GOP primaries. Nonetheless, the bipartisan civility police swooped down in full force to cry foul, with Cory Booker’s charge that attack ads are “nauseating” typifying the moralistic tone. “What ever happened to hope and change?” asked Bob Schieffer of CBS News. He apparently forgot that even the sainted Obama hope-and-change campaign of 2008 spent heavily on negative ads—more than the McCain campaign did. (Does no one recall the exquisite “Seven,” in which the old hero was presented as a doddering doofus unable to name the number of houses he owned?) David Brooks lamented that Obama’s negativity was “self-destructive” and left him “looking conventional.” Peggy Noonan gloated: “The president opened his campaign with a full-fledged assault on his opponent. This is a bad sign in an incumbent!”
Try selling that wisdom to George W. Bush, an incumbent who started assaulting John Kerry with attack ads as early as March in 2004 rather than reprise his “compassionate conservative” campaign of 2000 (much of it in reality a dispassionate disemboweling of Al Gore). Or to Bill Clinton, who started twisting the shiv in Bob Dole in April 1996, never for a second worrying whether a sorrowful Sunday-morning talk-show pastor might ask, “What ever happened to the Man From Hope?” Those two incumbents both won, as it happened.
The serious questions raised by the early Obama ads are not whether they were too much but too little: Was waiting until May behind the curve? Are the ads vicious enough to inflict lasting damage? Is there a nuclear option in Obama’s advertising arsenal that can blow Romney out of the water as LBJ’s immortal mushroom-cloud “Daisy” ad did Barry Goldwater on Labor Day in 1964? Given the anemic employment numbers and the pack of billionaire GOP sugar daddies smelling blood after their Wisconsin victory, a reboot of hope and change would truly be the reelection campaign’s most self-destructive option. Obama is embarking on one of the roughest political races in memory, not a nostalgia tour. He is facing an opponent with a proven record of successful carpet-bombing attacks, as Gingrich and Rick Santorum can attest. Just because that proposed super-PAC stink bomb branding Obama as a “metrosexual” disciple of a frothing-at-the-mouth Reverend Jeremiah Wright was aborted doesn’t mean that more of the same and uglier aren’t on the way. The premise of Romney’s entire campaign amounts to one long complaint against Obama, and shadowy donors whose names you’ll never learn can do the dirty work under PAC cover while Romney claims his hands are clean.
The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory. The notion that negative campaigning is some toxic modern aberration in American democracy is bogus. No campaign may ever top the Andrew Jackson–John Quincy Adams race of 1828, in which Jackson was accused of murder, drunkenness, cockfighting, slave-trading, and, most delicious of all, cannibalism. His wife and his mother, for good measure, were branded a bigamist and a whore, respectively. (Jackson won nonetheless.) In the last national campaign before the advent of political television ads, lovable Harry Truman didn’t just give hell to the “do nothing” Congress, as roseate memory has it. In a major speech in Chicago in late October 1948, he revisited still-raw World War II memories to imply that the “powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions”—that would be the Republicans— and their chosen front man, Thomas Dewey, were analogous to the Nazis and Hitler. Over-the-top? Dewey was a liberal by the standards of the postwar GOP and had more in common with a department-store mannequin than with a Fascist dictator.