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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Campaign 2012: Nothing, apparently, is off limits when it comes to political mud

Mitt Romney, who did you beat up in high school? (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

The early border skirmishes of Campaign 2012 are reviving questions about one candidate’s former pastor and shining a spotlight on the other’s high school hijinks. Can a fresh round of questions about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate be far behind?

In a campaign year when voters have declared the economy their top concern, Obama and Mitt Romney are on notice that there’s no statute of limitations on the issues or conduct that might be used against them. And there’s sure to be somebody with money or other means to insert even low-threshold matters into the political dialogue.

“It’s open season,” says Eric Dezenhall, an expert on crisis management. “This is going to be very rough.”

Thursday’s disclosure that a Republican-leaning super PAC was considering a $10 million ad campaign highlighting Obama’s past links to inflammatory preacher Jeremiah Wright was just the latest evidence that if there ever were limits on what was fair game in a campaign, they’re largely history.

That’s thanks to a flood of new money into politics, the ease of spreading political attacks via the Internet and changing attitudes about what’s an appropriate topic for discussion. Long gone are the days when candidates’ extramarital escapades were off-limits, photographers avoided taking pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt in a wheelchair and a few newspapers and TV stations acted as gatekeepers.

The New York Times quoted backers of this year’s Wright ad proposal as aiming to “do exactly what John McCain would not let us do” in the 2008 campaign.

Romney repudiated the Wright plan, as did the super PAC financier weighing it. Nonetheless, Obama’s campaign accused Romney of refusing to “stand up to the most extreme voices in the Republican Party” and the president’s supporters were happy to associate Romney with what campaign strategist David Axelrod called the “purveyors of slime.”

McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, spoke out forcefully during the campaign four years ago against efforts to use Wright’s provocative speeches against Obama, and the issue largely subsided. But since then, a series of court cases has cleared the way for an onslaught of campaign ads from outside groups seeking to influence elections.

Such so-called super PACs can be a megaphone for matters that would have gotten less attention in the past, and still allow candidates to deny they’re involved.

But outside messengers who do the dirty work in campaigns are nothing new in presidential politics. Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 was the target of an infamous outside ad about a furloughed rapist named Willie Horton. Democrat John Kerry in 2004 saw his record as a Vietnam War hero mischaracterized and used against him by the outside group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Political historian Evan Cornog, author of “The Power and the Story,” said the staying power of a particular issue or charge usually depends on whether it jibes with the public’s understanding of a candidate.

“We are addicted to narratives, and if something fits with the story, it’s going to get some traction,” says Cornog. “A good political operative will have a fairly good sense of what will work and what will not work.”

Both sides are experiencing this in real time:

—Questions about Romney’s bad behavior toward classmates during his high school years, revealed in a recent Washington Post article, are being used to reinforce the profile that Romney’s critics have tried to create of the GOP candidate as a corporate bully. The Democratic National Committee circulated the Post article and highlighted just one sentence about Romney’s behavior: “It was vicious.”

—Questions about Obama’s ties to his former preacher’s incendiary rhetoric about America and about whether the president was truly born in Hawaii and is a Christian fit with broader efforts to paint Obama as radically different from most Americans. Romney earlier this year told an interviewer, “I’m not sure which is worse, him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation.” That was a reference to remarks in which Obama actually did not promote a less Christian nation but observed growing religious diversity in the U.S.

When something nicely fits with the profile that one side or the other is trying to build, it may endure long after a question has been duly asked and answered.

Questions about the validity of Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate, for example, have been widely discredited, they but keep popping up. Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Rick Perry both toyed with it during the presidential primaries. A poll last May, after Obama had released his detailed Hawaii birth certificate, found that a third of Americans still thought he might have been born elsewhere or said they didn’t know.

Cornog points to plenty of positive aspects to the free-wheeling exchange of ideas and information allowed by a broad variety of news sources and the Internet but also has a warning: “If you enter an age in which you have elective belief systems independent of fact, you have a problem for your political world.”


AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed this report


Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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3 thoughts on “Campaign 2012: Nothing, apparently, is off limits when it comes to political mud”

  1. There are actions that are personal to the candidate, and there are actions of those in a circle of friends of the candidate.

    One might choose a church for many reasons, and even stay in that church in the face of in your face commentary from the pulpit. Is staying in the pew an automatic endorsement of every word that comes out of the pastor’s mouth? Likely not.

    Then there are personal actions of hazing, or abuse, which when the candidate is confronted with the particulars, the candidate suddenly has amnesia. One can think of the high school stunt, or one can think of the dog on the roof while the family inside the car is going to a vacation spot, hundreds of miles from home. These are personal actions that are performed by the candidate, and amnesia doesn’t cut it.

    Will birth certificate questions arise? In some ways, I’d love those to be put to rest. That is, having had the questions raised, let’s settle them once and for all and then shut up already.

    We are headed into what will be the nastiest campaign in the history of presidential politics. We have a Supreme Court unable to tell the difference between real breathing people and paper constructs that make money for real breathing people. This has resulted in huge amounts of unaccountable money flowing like water over Niagara Falls.

    The result will be that we will know far more about peccadilloes than real political positions. We’ll have more debates where the one line zinger counts more than real positions on issues. The sad thing is, we are getting what we earned for our obsession with politic as American Idol, along with our view that leadership is just another episode of Dancing With the Stars. Now, I don’t watch either of those shows, but base that statement on what I read about audience reactions and the resulting advert figures for various products sold during the breaks.

    Yet, it is disheartening to realize that the average American knows more about Hollywood than Breton Woods. Americans care less about the corporatocracy than the crimes committed on any of those TV mystery/court procedure/detective shows that amuse while deadening the brain.

    Sports heroes (an oxymoron in my view), garner more attention than protesters getting maced or pepper sprayed, even as they sit quietly and present no resistance, yet another violation of rights that is so ‘ho-hum’ these days. The death of our rights has been snuffed out, with voices of protest drowned out by the cheering as some rogue agent tortures to get information from a presumptive terrorist on film or the idiot box.

    I am not looking forward to all the negative that is coming our way. While we got precious little real information in the past, we’ll get far less of it this time around the electoral map. The mud will fly, and real information will be so covered with it as to disappear. We’ve gotten what they thought we deserved or wanted, when checkbook politics became the only view of issues and policies. Hannah help us, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

    • The easy answer to the Jeremiah Wright question is simply, “Barack Obama has also listened to John Boehner speak. Unlike some Congressmen, he has sat quietly and respectfully through such. President Barack Obama has had his picture taken with John Boehner. But does that imply agreement on all things? Hee hee hee…”

      And I’d just lurv to see the birthers dragged up again. Perhaps I’m atypical, but right now they seem nuttier than moon landing deniers, and it would be the work of a moment to point out “This complete wingnut supports Candidate X. Do you?”


  2. Not exactly breaking news. Democrats and their modern faux liberal base will continue to portray every critique of president Obama’s administration as racist and rich with “code words” indicating covert racism, and will terrify the elderly into believing their social security will be taken away by Republicans.

    Republicans and their modern faux “small government” base will continue to portray ctritiques of their party and candidate at “class warfare” by communists, and terrify the elderly into believing Democrats are going to begin euthanising them to cut medicare costs.

    Once the dust has settled, they will continue to serve the interests of those for whom the state is structured to serve. Should we pretend to be surprised? Yawn. 😉

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