It’s suddenly become de rigueur to complain that we’re now witnessing the nastiest presidential campaign of all time. Pearl-clutching chroniclers — surely determined to cover the finer points of the Romney gubernatorial record and adjudicate differences on tax policy, if the campaigns would just let them — are horrified that one candidate teased another about his pet-care philosophy; that the other has focused more on attacking his rival’s economic performance than his own attributes; and that a high-ranking official alleged that a candidate benefited from a legal tax write-off strategy.
The truth? Not only is this not the most negative campaign ever — it’s not the most negative campaign of your lifetime, unless you happen to be three years old.
Back in 2008, when I was an Obama spokesman in the general election, and worked in the Clinton war room during the primary, we were dogged by the same cries. The Obama and McCain camps were chastised by the late David Broder for our “personal bitterness and negativism.” Cindy McCain told us we were waging the “dirtiest campaign in American history.” And John McCain was running such a “fiercely negative” campaign, we were told, that his fellow Republicans were allegedly very worried about it.
The primary was no different. People forget now, but back then the Clinton campaign was accused of mud-slinging and dividing the party so often that we started a short-lived web site called AttackTimeline.com to chronicle the incoming negative charges we constantly received from our opponents. The purpose: to prove that we, too, were victims of all this negativity, so don’t put the blame squarely on us. And this was a primary.
With all this in mind, here are the three biggest misconceptions about the supposed negativity of this year’s campaign.
1. The charges exchanged in this election are nastier than any in history!!! While quantifying this kind of subjective measure is a difficult task, a look at the severest charges of the last three presidential campaigns is instructive:
In 2012, a candidate’s ally alleges that business decisions made by the opponent caused a Missouri man to lose his health care, which ultimately led to his wife’s death.
In 2008? A VP candidate alleges that her opponent has been “palling around with terrorists.”
In 2004? A candidate for VP suggests that a vote for the other ticket could result in a terrorist attack.
In 2012, a candidate for VP says his opponents’ plans would put people back “in chains.”
In 2004? A candidate’s ally coordinates an ad campaign to accuse the opponent of lying about his war injuries.
In 2012, a campaign aide suggests its opponent may have run afoul of the law due to discrepancies in the timeline used to describe his work experience in federal documents.
In 2008? A candidate says his opponent “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”
In 2004? A candidate for Vice President does his opponent’s daughter the favor of publicly outing her in a televised debate.
In 2012, a candidate teases his opponent for putting a dog on the roof of his car on a long-distance trip.
In 2008? A candidate teases his opponent for being computer illiterate.
In 2004? A candidate’s staff mocks his opponent by dressing up as him for Halloween, in hunting outfits which match what he wore during a goose-hunting photo op.
In 2012, a candidate asks whether his opponent would have made the same successful call to capture Osama bin Laden.
In 2008? A candidate says his opponent wants to treat terrorists as “nothing more than common criminals.”
In 2004? A group allied with a candidate suggests the opponent won’t show leadership and hunt down terrorists.
In 2012, a candidate’s supporter suggests that the opponent may have refused to share his tax returns because he has benefited from legal tax minimization strategies.
In 2008? A candidate alleges that his opponent refused to visit wounded troops because he couldn't have TV cameras with him when he did it.
In 2004? A candidate says his opponent spurned veterans and the unemployed, while only caring about the rich.
In 2012, both candidates accuse each of other wanting to gut Medicare.
In 2008? A candidate accuses the other of wanting to gut Medicare.
In 2004? A candidate accuses the other of instituting the largest Medicare premium hike in US history.
In 2012, a candidate accuses the other of enacting an unconstitutional health care plan, and vows to repeal it.
In 2008? A candidate accuses the other of having a “radical” health care plan.
In 2004? A candidate accuses the other of having a “big” and “intrusive” health care plan.
In 2012, a candidate accuses his opponent of going on an “apology” tour to other countries. In 2008? A candidate questions his opponent’s patriotism and claims he feels it has to prove something to him.
In 2004? A candidate says his opponent would insist on implementing a global test to get other nations’ permission before protecting the nation.
In 2012, a group supporting a candidate alleges his opponent is too cozy with Wall Street.
In 2008? A candidate faults his opponent as “cozy with lobbyists.”
In 2004, a candidate characterizes his opponent as caring more about the rich than veterans and the unemployed.
You get the idea.
2. Lies about an opponent’s policy positions or records are less dastardly than other attacks, because, hey, at least they’re talking about the issues! While this one hasn’t been stated explicitly, its practice has been overt. When candidates attack the opponent on dogs or tax returns, the negativity refs get their backs up and blow the whistle. But distort the other’s position on, say, welfare, or Medicare, and there’s typically less condemnation. Look at the stories linked to in this article, for example, and you’ll see far less (if any) umbrage taken toward policy deceptions, as if the fact that it’s a policy “debate” automatically makes it a high-minded discussion.
Look at welfare. As Alec MacGillis reports in The New Republic, the line that got the most applause in a recent Romney rally in Ohio was the candidate saying he “heard” that the president “is taking the work requirement out of welfare.” Echoing this claim, a narrator in a Romney TV ad tells us, “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”
This is objectively untrue (I searched online and could not find a single fact-check that ruled in Romney’s favor). In fact, work requirements are not being dropped. What’s happening, essentially, is that governors are now being given latitude to find new ways to get people on welfare working (and by the way, recipients of welfare were never required to work, anyway). So Romney is undermining any chance of an important policy debate by distorting the other side’s position.
But has the falsity of this charge dogged Romney’s campaign? Recall during the GOP primary when Michele Bachmann errantly stated that the HPV vaccine caused mental retardation. In this instance, the press was vigilant in correcting her misstatement, and each time she repeated it, her credibility took a hit. This has not happened with Romney on welfare, nor has his deception here generated a fraction of the controversy that has enveloped Harry Reid for speculating about Romney’s tax burden.
This is presumably because any discussion of a policy issue — even a dishonest one — is substantive, since it’s talking about policy… or something.
3. Barack Obama is in danger of ruining his “hope and change” brand by “turning negative” this year! This claim simply relies on a re-imagined history. Those who now believe Obama ran only positive commercials in 2008 may want to review the record. While John McCain ran a higher percentage of negative ads, Obama still availed himself of plenty of opportunities to criticize and contrast his opponents, as more than 50% of his ads were negative, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
And during the primary campaign with Hillary Clinton, implicit in his positive argument that he would usher in “hope and change” was the counter-argument that Clinton was a symbol of the old, dirtier way of doing business in DC. Based on emails I have from that time, specific attacks on Clinton ranged from policy critiques on her health care plan and its individual mandate, to more personal characterizations like "disingenuous," "untruthful," "dishonest," "doing whatever it takes to win," "attempting to deceive the American people just so that they can win this election," and "playing politics with war."
The bottom line: For better or worse, Obama is a professional politician, and always has been. This means he plays by similar rules and playbooks as other people in his line of business. Which means that his use of these same standard tools this time around is neither a new part of his arsenal, nor does it represent a threat to his brand, which managed to survive a heated 2008 campaign which has only been cemented further during the subsequent four years.
All of which raises the question, if it’s just not true that we’re experiencing the most negative campaign ever, why do we continue to engage in this Henny Penny hyperbole? After all, this false claim is a quadrennial tradition, frequently raised by struggling campaigns, as predictable as it is unsubstantiable.
Perhaps it’s optimistic primness. Perhaps, it’s simply nostalgia for a past that never was. Or perhaps it’s just another instance of political observers falling for campaigns' false claims.
Blake Zeff, a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, is a BuzzFeed contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeZeff.