Paradox: In terms of raw brainpower, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney together add up to be one of the most impressive presidential choices ever offered to the American electorate. Yet 2012 has shaped up as one of the sillier and sleazier campaigns in recent times. The newest Priorities USA ad accusing Mitt Romney of culpability for a woman's cancer death follows on Harry Reid's unfounded tax accusations. (Kevin Drum at Mother Jones: "It's just Reid making stuff up in order to put pressure on Romney, and I think we all know it.") Romney and his surrogates have not (as yet) done anything quite so bad as the Priorities USA ad, but his messages on Obama's alleged threat to military voting are not exactly paragons of honest issue-discussion either.
Why is this happening? Why do good candidates run bad campaigns?
A master theory:
1) It's the economy. These are hard times, and there's a lot of ambient anger looking for a target.
2) It's the Super-PACs. Unaccountable secret money will do and say things that candidates who must "approve this message" won't do.
3) It's the lack of enthusiasm. The enthusiasm among Democrats for Barack Obama has subsided under the depressing pall of events since 2009. As for Mitt Romney, the Republican attitude toward him is best summed up by a contributor to the old FrumForum: "I feel [about Romney] like a bride in an arranged marriage I can't escape." If you can't make your voters like your guy, then your only hope is to make them hate the other guy.