The Trouble With a Campaign About "Issues"

In the early stages of every presidential campaign, journalists and pundits start saying, "This is going to be the most negative campaign in history." Then as the campaign proceeds, it turns out to be plenty negative, but not really the worst in history, so they stop saying that. Eventually, however, some back-and-forth of attacks will cause them to lament, "We thought this could be a campaign about issues. But instead it's all personal attacks!" And that's the stage we're at now.

As Buzzfeed's Ben Smith wrote yesterday, "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… Three days later, the campaign has reached its ugliest, most fevered moment."

But let's not be naïve here. Every campaign gets negative, and every campaign gets personal. Think back on the presidential campaigns you've lived through. Was there a single one about which you'd say, "That was really a substantive, serious campaign about issues"? Of course not. This is American politics. It's trivial, it's misleading, it's demagogic, and it's negative. We can set aside for another day the question of whether the fault for that lies primarily with the politicians or with the voters (I lean toward the latter), but we shouldn't be surprised when the campaign doesn't turn out to sound like a luncheon at the Brookings Institution.

That being said, Mitt Romney has apparently decided that all that stuff he used to say about Barack Obama being a nice guy who's in over his head wasn't working, so he's going in a new direction:

"Mr. President, take your campaign of division, and anger, and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America!" Now we're getting somewhere!

Yeah, Mitt Romney is all about the uniting. Anyhow, there's something we need to remember as we get deeper into this. There's a widespread assumption that talking about issues is good, and talking about personal matters is bad; one is substantive and serious, and the other is vicious and underhanded. But let's not forget that most of the nastiest campaigning has an "issue" as its ostensible subject. When Mitt Romney decided to go back to the old "welfare queen" playbook and make up false attacks on the Obama administration for coddling undeserving poor people who steal your money to support their lazy lifestyles, he was talking about an "issue." When Barack Obama made a silly joke about Romney putting his dog on the roof of his car, he wasn't talking about issues. But there's no question that the Romney attack is far more dishonest, far more damaging to anything resembling real debate and far more worthy of condemnation. Just because something concerns an "issue" doesn't mean it can't be despicable.

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