Jewish World Review Feb 3, 2012/ 10 Shevat, 5772
A Low Road Through a Weak Field
By Roger Simon
1. The Road Is Low
Presidential campaigning in America has long been dirty and vicious because we've always had politicians who deserved it.
By 1800 — only America's fourth presidential election — our infant nation had already reached a vile political state.
The forces of Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
The supporters of Adams called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
Today, after more than two centuries of progress, Newt Gingrich says Mitt Romney is "breathlessly dishonest," and Romney says that Gingrich is an "influence peddler" who had to "resign in disgrace."
There is a difference between then and now, however. In earlier times, attacks took place in newspapers, pamphlets, handbills and by men just standing on tree stumps and shouting.
Today, attacks take place on television. About 97 percent of the households in America own a television set, and the average viewer watches more than five hours of television per day.
Political campaigns believe in TV ads not just because of their potential reach (I say potential because you tend to tune them out of your head at a certain point), but because every second, every frame, every moment is completely controllable. Unlike a speech, a debate or a news conference, a candidate can't screw up a TV ad.
This is very appealing to candidates who grow tired of worrying about how they are going to screw up next.
As you may have read, the super PAC supporting Romney spent $14.3 million in Florida, almost all of it on negative ads.
The old notion that a candidate had to build up a positive image before going negative has been thrown out the window. Everybody goes negative now, and usually as soon and as often as possible.
Why? Because it appears to work, and even when it doesn't work, it makes the candidate feel better. Candidates fume over the despicable attacks by their opponents, and they want to hit back.
Do the candidates pay a price? Sure. Romney's disapproval numbers have risen along with his negative campaigning. But so what? If he doesn't get the nomination, it doesn't matter how good his public image is.
Everybody plays for today and figures he can buy more ads to correct any problem in the future.
2. The Field Is Weak
After months and months of saying this, I have decided that it is actually true. At a dinner of political analysts and journalists this week, we went around the table trying to think of a weaker field than the Republican one this cycle. One journalist chose the Democratic field of 1992 — if one removed Bill Clinton from the list.
This was met with loud objection, largely because you can't remove Clinton from the list — he won the nomination and the presidency after all — but also, going back and looking at the 1992 field, you find Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, Doug Wilder and Gene McCarthy.
Maybe not the strongest field ever assembled, but compare it to this year's Republican field, some of whom have already dropped out: Romney, Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.
To me, that is a weak field not just in comparison to the Democratic 1992 field, but in comparison to past Republican fields.
So why, if the field is so weak, hasn't Romney dispatched it already?
First, he probably did Tuesday night. His huge win in Florida, the first large primary state to vote and a very important state in the general election, may not dry up all the money for his opponents — there is an embarrassing amount of money out there for political campaigns to tap into — but it will dry up enthusiasm.
Romney's only big decision in the weeks ahead is whether to continue to debate. Yes, if he refuses, he will be attacked for cowardice, but without the free publicity from debates, his remaining opponents will have almost no audience.
Second, Romney is not an overpoweringly strong candidate himself. He may think that running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics was hugely important, but I don't think you can find many people who know there was a 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
He was a one-term governor of Massachusetts, whose greatest success, a health care plan that requires virtually all citizens to buy health care insurance or pay a fine, is something the Republican Party now hates.
You can argue Barack Obama didn't have much of a record when he won, but he was a gifted campaigner and now has the power (along with the problems) of incumbency.
Romney is not a bad campaigner, with one exception: He got rocked badly in one debate when questions he should have been prepared to answer — his failure to release his tax returns and the low tax rate he pays — found him surprisingly unprepared. It didn't derail him, but against Barack Obama, he will have to be a better campaigner than he now is.
3. Things Will Get Worse
In the general election, both campaigns will have all the money they need to attack each other without restraint.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us," Romney said in his victory speech from Tampa, Fla., Tuesday night.
And he seemed prepared.
"President Obama's idea of a free economy is to send your money to his friends," Romney said.
I am not exactly sure who Romney meant by Obama's "friends," but it doesn't sound good.
"Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of America," Romney went on, adding that when it comes to foreign policy, "President Obama has adopted a policy of appeasement and apology."
To be fair, the Democrats have been relentless in their attacks on Romney, having decided early he was going to be the nominee. Tuesday night, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said, "Mitt Romney has made it clear he will say anything, take any position on any given day and before any given audience, and will distort any fact about his or his opponents' record to win."
In the months ahead it, both campaigns will be everywhere across this land. Just don't look for them on the high road.
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate