Barack Obama has been accused of many sins, but among the most common Republican charges against him is that he is a warmonger—though not in the usual sense of the term, of course. Just since the turn of the New Year, conservatives have inveighed against Obama for prosecuting a “war on oil,” a “war on coal” (with an attendant “war on Appalachia”), and a “war on energy”; a “war on religion,” a “war on the Vatican,” and a “war on the Catholic Church”; a “war on the Supreme Court” and a “war on the U.S. Constitution”; and, according to a new book co-authored by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, a “war on jobs and growth.”
Even against this background of promiscuous martial-metaphorizing, however, few would have predicted that Mitt Romney would spend his first full day as a general-election candidate assailing Obama for waging—wait for it—a war on women. Or that the next day, after the kerfuffle involving Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen erupted, Romney’s people would attack Obama for inciting a “war on moms.” And for engaging in “class warfare” with the Buffett Rule. And for stoking a “war on reality” for … who knows? But while Democrats may tut-tut and shake their heads, they are hardly innocent here. It was the left, after all, that introduced the war-on-women lingo to the political vernacular in the first place.
Phony wars are nothing new in presidential politics, to be sure, but rarely have they been this dimwitted, dishonest, debasing, or, when it comes to what the months between now and November hold in store, so utterly depressing. And yet as dismaying as last week was, it was also revealing of the terrain and tactics that will define the general election—with Chicago relentlessly touting economic fairness and seeking to exacerbate Romney’s weaknesses with key constituencies such as women, and with Boston talking economic opportunity and scrambling to rehab its man’s battered image with those same groups. The Democratic side is the favorite in this fight, no doubt. But there are signs amid the skirmishing that the Republican team can’t be counted out just yet.
Let’s start with the scrap over the Buffett Rule, and tax policy more broadly. On the former, Obama has proposed (in a bill that the Senate will take up this week but is almost certain not to pass) that incomes over $1 million be taxed at an effective rate of 30 percent. On the latter, he pledges to allow the Bush tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 to expire at the end of the year. These are the plans that Romney and his allies characterize as class warfare—plans motivated by “the president’s priority of income redistribution,” as Karl Rove put it, and “designed to be punitive” to the successful, as top Romney surrogate John Sununu chimed in.
On the merits, of course, the claims are ludicrous to the point of being laughable. It’s often (and rightly) pointed out that, with respect to the Bush tax cuts, what the Obamans want is a return to the Clinton-era tax rates—but only for the top 2 percent of filers. The Buffett Rule would affect even fewer people: the 0.08 percent of taxpayers, according to calculations by Citizens for Tax Justice, who earn most of their income through capital gains. And, though raising the tax rate on those gains to 30 percent would be a doubling of the rate that currently obtains, it would still be 5 percent lower than it was after the 1986 tax reform ushered in by (and venerated by conservative fans of) the sainted Ronald Reagan. Who knew the Gipper was a class warrior too?
In truth, Obama’s tax plans are designed to be punitive only in one sense and toward one person: politically for Romney, whose refusal to release more than one year of his tax returns (despite having handed over 23 years’ worth to John McCain as part of his V.P. vetting in 2008) has become a prime target for Chicago. Why? Because the Obamans suspect that Romney’s returns would show that over many years he has engaged in an aggressive strategy of tax avoidance—perhaps perfectly legal but still illustrating his out-of-touchness. As Joe Biden asked a New Hampshire audience at a speech last week, “How many of you all have a Swiss bank account?”
But the politics of Obama’s tax platform and his wider argument in favor of economic fairness aren’t clearly in his favor. According to a recent poll released by centrist Democratic group Third Way, 42 percent of independents and 43 percent identified as “swing independents” (those who remain undecided) agree with the statement, “We need an economy based on fairness, where the rich pay their fair share, corporations play by the rules, and all Americans get a fair shot.” By contrast, 47 and 51 percent of those groups agree with the assertion, “We need an economy based on opportunity, where hard work is rewarded, the government lives within its means, and economic growth is our top priority.” And by wide majorities, both groups say that fixing the budget deficit is more important than reducing income inequality. All of which reaffirms the one soft spot for Obama in other national polls: For all Romney’s troubles, he is running roughly even with the incumbent on the issues of jobs, the economy, and putting the nation’s fiscal house in order.
Not so when it comes to women voters, as everyone is by now well aware. Indeed, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, the gender gap between Obama and Romney currently yawns at a chasmic 19 points. To no small extent, Romney is suffering from wounds inflicted by the GOP nomination fight, in which Santorum’s ultracon positions on social and cultural issues forced the former Massachusetts governor further right than he wants or needs to be. (As for where he actually is—hey, who knows? We’re talking about Mitt Romney here!) And for weeks, Democrats, led by party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, made hay of the spectacle, crowing loudly and gleefully about the Republican war on women.
It was this phenomenon that Romney attempted to turn on its head by maintaining that Obama’s economic policies were the real source of violence against the ladies. There were two mountainous problems with the ploy, however. First, it featured as its basis an entirely implausible (and quickly debunked) statistic: that women have accounted for 92 percent of job losses since the president took occupancy of the White House. And second, it was followed up by a campaign conference call—specifically on women’s issues, n.b.—in which Romney’s advisers couldn’t answer a basic query about whether the presumptive Republican nominee supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which made it easier for women to sue for equal pay and was the first piece of legislation Obama signed into law.
But then some manna fell from the heavens and straight into Team Romney’s lap in the form of the Rosen flap. Put aside the fact that Rosen doesn’t work for Obama or for the Democratic Party. Put aside that much of what she said on CNN would have gone without notice had it not been for one horrific line: “Guess what? [Romney’s] wife has never worked a day in her life.” That one line was enough to ignite a classic media freak-show conflagration, allowing Team Romney to seize the moral and political high ground and, most important, spring out of its defensive crouch and launch a fierce offensive.
Was the resulting 24-hour squall anything but absurd? Certainly not. But Democrats airily pooh-poohing the matter needed only to look at the reaction of the Obama campaign, the White House, and the DNC to get an accurate read on whether the Democratic forces sensed that they were suddenly vulnerable. Both Jim Messina and David Axelrod, two of Obama’s top political hands, insta-tweeted strongly worded disavowals of Rosen’s remarks. Michelle Obama tweeted a message of implicit support for Ann Romney, and Obama himself followed up more explicitly in an TV interview that day. And by the following morning, DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse was running as fast as he could from not only Rosen but the war-on-women appellation itself: “I’m not a fan of the term,” Woodhouse told Slate’s Dave Weigel. “We in the DNC have not been running a campaign based on the term ‘war on women.’ ” To which all one can say is: Ahem.
It would be easy enough to dismiss all this as irrelevant. Yet the antic, manic, overwrought first week of the general election did convey clearly two lessons worth pondering. The first is that, on both taxes and the gender gap, the Romney campaign isn’t going down without a fight—and it would behoove the Obamans to beware the ample dangers of smugness and sloppiness and overplaying their (admittedly strong) hand. And the second is that the campaign henceforward will be anything but pretty. How personal things will get remains to be seen. But neither side has ever demonstrated any reluctance not just to wage war but to scorch the earth in the process. In other words, if you thought the GOP nomination tussle was sickeningly, deplorably, appallingly brutish, superficial, and mean, I have five words of advice: Avert your eyes now, people.