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Thursday, August 9, 2012

The 2012 Cycle: Attack, Feign Outrage, Repeat


The Democratic outrage machine is in full lather.

On Wednesday, the talking heads and campaign operatives spewed angry e-mails and Twitter messages about Mitt Romney‘s latest television ad, which accuses the president of wanting to “gut” the work part of welfare-to-work.

“There is not an independent person that has looked at that ad, not one person that's looked at that and said it's remotely and substantially true,” Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to the president's campaign, said on MSNBC Wednesday morning.

Last month, the outrage was directed at another Romney ad that took a few lines from Mr. Obama about roads and bridges into twisted them into disrespect for small business. The president called it “out of context” and “flat wrong.” Brad Woodhouse, a Democratic spokesman, said it was “trumped up, out-of-context fact-checked-to-death B.S.”

But hang on a minute. Even as they mount their high horses to complain, Democrats are eagerly delivering their own attacks seizing on a snippet or two of Mr. Romney's comments, ignoring whatever he might actually have meant in favor of a quick-and-dirty hit.

On Wednesday, a Democratic “super PAC” began running an ad that essentially accused Mr. Romney of causing the death of a woman whose husband lost his job at a company owned by Mr. Romney's Bain Capital.

Cue: The umbrage.

“It's sad and disappointing that President Obama's allies would stoop to such levels in an attempt to impugn Mitt Romney's character,” said Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Romney.

Negative, out-of-context attacks have come to define the 2012 presidential campaign - as has the offense that is inevitably taken. It is the height of political chutzpah, where both sides slide back and forth between perpetrator and victim with no sense of irony along the way.

“This over-th e-top crying that both campaigns are doing after they landed these blows - I think the American people are sick of it,” said John Weaver, a political strategist who advised Senator John McCain of Arizona for years.

The candidates and their allies should stop “this fake personal injury that they are both going through,” Mr. Weaver said. “There's no whining in this business.”

And yet, in this political season, the whining has been almost as loud as the barrage of negative attacks that has preceded it.

- Democrats howled last year when Mr. Romney's campaign produced an ad showing Mr. Obama saying: “If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.” It turns out, the clip was from 2008, and Mr. Obama was quoting an aide to Mr. McCain.

- It was Mr. Romney's turn to cry foul a few months later, when Democrats gleefully jumped on Mr. Romney saying “I like to fire people” and “I'm not concerned about the very poor.” They left ou t the context, he complained, though Democrats paid him no heed.

- But turnaround is fair play, it seems. So when Mr. Obama said that the “private sector is doing fine,” the same Republicans who insisted on context were suddenly happy to quote the president without any. Complaints came streaming in from the White House and its allies.

- And yet, even as the Democrats complained about the private sector comments, they seized on comments Mr. Romney made that same day about teachers and firefighters. Mr. Romney doesn't care about them, they said, ignoring whatever context there might have been to his remarks.

- However much they talked about the importance of context, Mr. Romney's campaign left most of it out in a barrage of ads showing the president saying “If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.” He was talking about roads and bridges, a point that was ignored.

Mike McCurry, a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton, said neither side seems able to control the pace or intensity of the back-and-forth.

“They haven't found the volume knob,” he said.

“There used to be at least a sliding scale of what level of vitriol you would use in a campaign,” Mr. McCurry added. “You went to the highest level for the highest offense. What happens now is everyone just goes to the loudest and strongest response they can make. It just escalates the temperature of the campaign.”

Negative attacks are not new. But in the age of Twitter and Facebook, neither side seems hampered by a concern that they might do something that crosses a line that the other side wouldn't.

On Wednesday, Democrats eagerly spread around a Huffington Post story that alleges links between Mr. Romney and El Salvadoran death squads. The subject line of the e-mail from Mr. Woodhouse read simply: “Death Squads”.

Over the weekend, Republicans seized on a lawsuit in Ohio by Mr. Obama's campaign that seeks to allow early voting for all residents, not just military families and those living overseas. In Mr. Romney's telling, though, the lawsuit was an attack on military families.

Both sides have expressed their disdain that the other would stoop so low.

“I remember feigning outrage myself on some days,” said Mr. McCurry. “But not at this level. They just seem to be pounding each other.”

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.