Why The Presidential Campaign Got So Mean Tuesday

Mirror image campaigns run away from policy. Phasers set on kill.

Glenda Abicht holds a sign questioning Romney’s money policies during a Mitt Romney campaign stop in Miami this week. J Pat Carter / AP

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan was supposed to transform the 2012 presidential campaign away from what Politico called the “smallest” campaign ever into something grand and honorable.

Everyone said so.

“Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib.

“It’s essentially a choice by Mitt Romney to say sure, let’s have a big debate about the big choices facing the American economy and American spending,” said CNN’s John King.

The Obama campaign, too, stopped talking about horses and tax returns for a moment to lick its lips at the prospect of a policy debate Democrats believe they can win, and Vice President Joe Biden called Ryan to say he “looked forward to engaging him on the clear choice voters face this November,” according to the White House.

Three days later, the campaign has reached its ugliest, most fevered moment. President Obama himself invoked an old story about Romney strapping a dog to the roof of his car. The Chairman of the Republican National Committee shot back with a jibe about Obama having eaten dog as a schoolboy in Indonesia. Biden suggested that Republicans want to put voters back “in chains.” Romney demanded Obama takes his campaign of “division and anger and hate back to Chicago.” Obama’s spokesman called him “unhinged.” The atmosphere bristled with conflict, Twitter spilled over with gleeful vitriol, and the campaign reached the sort of fevered political moment when it feels like anything can happen.

But if we didn’t predict this moment, we should have. The logic of President Obama’s campaign has always been, as a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House told me this time last year, that “unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.”

Romney’s strategy had been different: To simply stay out of Obama’s way as he fell. The race, his aides promised, would be a referendum on Obama; Romney was an obviously acceptable alternative, a success in the private and public sector who had avoided being pinned down on policy and, whatever his flaws, could hardly be labeled extreme. Obama, the focus-group tested story went, was a nice guy out of his depth. Romney was the solution.

The ferocity of Obama’s assault on Romney’s character had already rattled this plan. On June 18, after a top Obama aide suggested that he could be a “felon,” Romney dropped the “nice guy” line.

“[Romney] has said Obama’s a nice fellow, he’s just in over his head,” an adviser told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins. “But I think the governor himself believes this latest round of attacks that have impugned his integrity and accused him of being a felon go so far beyond that pale that he’s really disappointed. He believes it’s time to vet the president. He really hasn’t been vetted; McCain didn’t do it.”

The last month has alternated between jibes and Romney’s central logic of focusing on the economy, the only obstacle between the campaigns and a full-on mudfight. The nomination of Paul Ryan has, finally, removed that obstacle. Ryan’s nomination instantly turned the race from a referendum into a choice, and gave Romney his own parallel to the economy: The Ryan budget.

The campaigns had not been, to this point, parallel, but now they’re dark mirror images.

It’s not that Romney doesn’t believe in Ryan’s budget; it’s not that he doesn’t think it’s defensible and, indeed, that Americans will ultimately be convinced of its wisdom. But Obama’s aides, likewise, believe their man saved the American economy, and they point with pride to a tepid recovery that, they argue, would have been far, far worse without his stimulus. That they feel they can win these arguments in private, on debaters’ points, or in the history books, though, doesn’t mean they want to make them the subject of a presidential campaign. Obama still doesn’t want to talk about the economy. Romney doesn’t want to talk about Medicare.

And so they have found something else to talk about: one another.

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