The secret of Republican political success since the rise of the right is not, as many liberals believe, that they play no-rules hardball. Instead, it’s their skill at projection—at accusing Democrats of doing what they are doing themselves, or are planning to do, or have done. That’s the real Rosetta stone. And that’s what Mitt Romney did this week when he called Barack Obama’s tough, but hardly extraordinary, ads about Bain Capital “character assassination.” He’s trying to make it so that Bain as a subject becomes off limits, and he’s laying the groundwork for later, when the real character assassination starts—and I hope your memory isn’t so short that you forget that he knows a thing or two about the topic himself.
Republicans have perfected many a dark campaign art over the years, from racial nudging and winking to suggesting that we’ll all be killed by terrorists if voters elect Democrats. But projection is the darkest art of all. And it’s so simple! When Republicans are acting like a mob—down in Dade County, for example—they accuse the Democrats of having a mob mentality. When they’re planning on blowing holes in the budget deficit bigger than the one the iceberg laid on the Titanic, via Paul Ryan’s budget and tax cuts for the rich, they stand up and accuse the Democrats of blowing holes in the budget. It works pretty well, too. All the conservative blogs pick up on it, and Fox and so on. And then, when the mainstream media sit down to write about the subject at hand, stories will note that “The GOP has been saying for months…”
This is what is happening here. Romney is trying to do two things. First, he’s trying to make any criticism of his Bain record out of bounds. Aware of course that he’s been forced by reality to revise downward from “more than 100,000” to “thousands” the number of jobs he helped create at Bain, he knows that he can’t use Bain as a plus to the extent that he wanted to. Think about it—the cornerstone of his career, the thing he spent 15 years of his life doing, the business he built (with Mr. Bain’s blessing and seed money)—pretty much out the window now. So that being the case, he needs to eliminate it as a minus. See if the referee will toss it out, if the judge (the media) will rule it inadmissible.
The obvious way to do that is to call any mention of it character assassination. Are those ads really character assassination? Do they say, for example: “Mitt Romney must be a really terrible and malevolent human being to have thrown those poor steel workers out on the street”? Because that would be an attack on Romney’s character. But no, they do not. They say Mitt Romney did us dirt. They’re emotional, sure. And if you want to say emotionally manipulative, all right by me. And yes, Joe Biden took it all a step or two further with his Ohio speech, saying Romney doesn’t understand the rest of us and so on.
But come on. That’s politics. Those aren’t character attacks. They’re salvos in a debate about what kinds of capitalism are good for regular people and what kinds aren’t. Campaigns Democratic or Republican don’t exactly elevate debates, Lord knows; but if we’re going to have arguments about how our society works, that’s a pretty useful one to have.
But the character-assassination label will come in handy—and this is Romney’s second purpose—when the Republican attacks on Obama really start. Maybe Romney is telling the truth, and his campaign will be all about how Obama promised nice things and seems like a nice young man but failed to deliver on them. His polling tells him he has to campaign like that for now, because Obama is far more likable to more people than he.
Something tells me, though, that the Romney campaign will eventually lower the boom. One might argue that it has already. What’s “apologizing for America,” after all? Aside from being a cheap and contemptible lie, is it not a kind of assault on the character of the president of the United States to accuse him of doing something that he hasn’t done, especially when the accusation is obviously meant to carry treasonous connotations? Romney’s “apologizing for America” line has always told us a great deal about character—Romney’s, not the president’s.
Don’t forget, finally, that Romney is pretty adept at character assassination himself. What do you call it when in those crucial primaries that he barely won against Rick Santorum—Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin—he was outspending Santorum six and nine and 12 to one with incredibly negative ads? Or the “tsunami of sleaze,” as my colleague John Avlon put it at the time that the Romney campaign dumped on Newt Gingrich in Florida, where 92 percent of the aired TV ads were negative? Those gutter attacks, aired over and over and over, are, it is worth remembering, the main reason the guy is the nominee. He was tied or behind in all those states until he emptied the trash. He wasn’t winning them over with his wit.
So it’s a bit rich to hear him saying now that he’s sad to see Obama in the gutter and he’s going to keep it on the up and up. But at some point, he’ll attack. And when he does, he’ll sigh sadly and say that he was forced into this position by that mean Obama, and he’ll count on everyone to forget the primary season, the foulest one by far in the modern history of American politics, for which the man who neither drinks nor swears bears the vast majority of the blame. That, come to think of it, is a “character” issue too.