The radio waves are heavy with the sound of presidential attack advertisements, and nobody seems able to escape unscathed. Over the past few weeks, President Obama has faced a whole wave of criticism calling his presidency failed and his leadership ineffectual. Others have attacked Newt Gingrich as unreliable, undisciplined, an embarrassment, and “chaos.” Ron Paul has been branded as an egomaniac and a racist lunatic, among many other epithets. Mitt Romney has been described as a vulture capitalist, a serial killer (if corporations are indeed people), and a perfectly lubricated weather vane. Think the election is becoming vicious? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
This campaign will go down as the nastiest presidential election in American history. For the first time, a president will run for office attacked by Super PACs which have unlimited money to spend, thanks to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. To date, this race has seen Super PACs spend twice as much as the presidential campaigns themselves. The airwaves in South Carolina have been so saturated with political commercials that they could devote an entire channel to air purchased TV segments. There are only so many times one can hear that Romney is a perfectly lubricated vulture killer before the ads begin to lose their effect.
To see how nasty the race will get, one needs to look no further than Super PAC ads already on the internet and blitzing the airwaves of Florida. No candidate is spared: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum are featured in new attack ads. But the existence of Super PACs and free flow of money doesn’t necessarily mean the ads have to be negative. The 2012 campaign will be so brutally ferocious because Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, assuming he wins the nomination, have nothing to spend the money on but attacking the other. Neither has a record he can comfortably publicize in this race, which will invariably come down to choosing the lesser of two much maligned evils.
Let’s start with Romney. He seems unable to pick a record and stick with it- there is the record of what Mitt did as governor, what he said he did, and what he plans to do. The man has taken more positions regarding abortion than most Americans knew existed. As governor, he passed sweeping health care reform, which is less than popular among his Republican base. And before he entered politics, Romney served as the CEO of Bain Capital. He managed to either create thousands of jobs or destroy thousands of jobs, or both, depending on whom one asks. And these days, any ties to Wall Street are less than popular. This leaves Romney with precious little private sector experience to emphasize. He did successfully run the 2002 Winter Olympics, which has been conveniently boiled down to the important fact that he speaks French.
Obama doesn’t have much to emphasize either. His signature health care reform remains largely unpopular, and Romney’s ties to it dilute the saliency of the issue. Obama also bailed out Wall Street, which cost him support among Occupy Wall Street crowds, who just might take a break from their drum circles to vote in November. Obama will focus on his foreign policy, which has been a mixed bag. Yes, he got Gadhafi and Bin Laden, but he has been unable to do much about Iran or Syria. Moreover, foreign policy chops simply do not win elections. George H.W. Bush handily obliterated an opposing Iraqi army and won only 37% of the popular vote in the following year’s race. Sure, Obama can take credit for some successes, such as bailing out Detroit and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But these will not change electoral maps.
The election will then focus largely on the economy. Romney supporters will publicize pessimistic economic data, unfairly deemphasizing the severity of the mess Obama inherited. Obama’s backers will play up the extent of the recovery, to which Republicans will point out that unemployment anywhere close to 8.5% is not very good by any measure. And so the economy, finally, will lose much of its limelight.
Which leaves us right where we started. Candidates will have somewhere in the ballpark of a billion dollars each to spend, and Super PACs will spend billions more. Neither candidate seems to have much of a popular record to run on, leaving nothing but to do but assassinate the other’s character. The election is going to get very ugly, very quickly. When we really need hope and change, we will have to settle for smear tactics and personal attacks.
Or possibly a weather vane.