In an old episode of The Simpsons, Homer discovers that he'll have to pay an extra $5 in taxes to support a bear patrol. "It's the biggest tax increase in history!" he shouts. "Actually, Dad," says Lisa, "it's the smallest tax increase in history." That's what I was reminded of when I saw a tweet from New York magazine's John Heilmann that read: "Truth: 2012 will be most negative pres campaign of our lifetimes." Heilmann was reacting to a Politico article titled "Obama plan: Destroy Romney." The article exposed the shocking news that should Mitt Romney become the Republican presidential nominee, the Obama campaign will -- you might want to sit down -- criticize him strongly! Many comparisons are made to 2004, in which a president with mediocre approval ratings launched character attacks against his opponent.
This won't be the last we hear of the venomous, personal campaign that 2012 is destined to be. But here's the thing: that's true of every presidential campaign. Every incumbent president tries to make his opponent unpalatable. Bush did it to Kerry. Clinton did it to Dole. Bush I did it to Clinton. That's just what happens. And when there isn't an incumbent, both candidates try to do it to each other. Campaigns are about character, and even when the candidates are talking about issues, they're actually making an argument about character.
That isn't to say that some campaigns aren't more vicious or more repugnant than others. If I had to nominate "the most negative presidential campaign of our lifetimes," I'd go with 1988, in which Republicans argued that Michael Dukakis shouldn't be elected because he would let scary black convicts rape our white women (if you think I exaggerate, you're too young to remember). Next to that, the Obama campaign arguing that Mitt Romney is an untrustworthy flip-flopper who'll say anything (which they'll no doubt argue) is pretty mild.