The risks of Obama’s contemplated brass knuckles campaign

Fearing (as he should) that he is danger of losing in November, President Obama reportedly plans a no-holds-barred campaign designed to vilify Mitt Romney. According to one report, Team Obama will “maul [Romney] for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues…”

If Obama follows through on this strategy, then, as Peter Wehner notes, he will have breached his promise of 2008 to “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger, and to end a politics that “breeds…conflict and cynicism.” His inaugural proclamation of “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics” will have been just words.

In itself, this may not be much of a problem for Obama. Sure, the electorate yearns for a new politics. Sure, Obama promised it. But deep down, voters understand that a new politics is much easier to promise than to deliver. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to be “a uniter rather than a divider.” By 2004, it was clear that he hadn’t delivered. But the electorate didn’t punish him.

On the other hand, Bush didn’t run the kind of unrelentingly-nasty re-election campaign that Team Obama reportedly contemplates. And therein resides the first of two major risks of such a campaign.

Obama biggest asset is the fact that people like him. They like him because he came across initially as likeable; because Americans want to like their president; and because they especially want to like the first Black president. Thus, they like Obama even though they don’t believe he has delivered on his promises and even though they don’t trust him much on the economy – the most important issue in the campaign.

The nastier the campaign Obama runs, the less voters will be inclined to keep liking him. To some extent, Obama can minimize this danger by having others do the dirty work for him. As I wrote here, though, this won’t be easy for Obama because his arrogance works against him. This is the man who famously proclaimed himself a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, a better political director than his political director, etc. Presumably, he also considers himself a better attack dog than his attack dogs.

But even Obama out-sources the worst of the nastiness, a scorched earth policy of over-the-top attacks on Romney faces another danger – Romney may not conform to Team Obama’s caricature. It is hubris for Obama to think he can define Romney in any way he pleases. In a race this important, voters aren’t going to take one side’s definition of its opponent as the gospel.

Romney has exploitable weaknesses, of course. But he’s also an attractive, potentially likeable (if stiff) guy with an impressive resume. He certainly won’t remind people of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, or John Galt. Look for Romney to come out of the Republican convention with a huge bounce, if the picture Team Obama paints beforehand doesn’t match what voters see the first time many of them take a long look at him.

And look for voters to resent it if they feel they were misled.

Any lawyer who has tried a case knows that the picture you paint in your opening statement better be one you can make stick during the trial. It won’t do to portray the opposing party as a pantomime villain, unless he or she is suitable for the part. The risk of a backlash is too great.

JOHN adds: I think there is another risk, too. Obama’s basic problem is that he can’t run on his record. Vilifying Romney isn’t the Obama campaign’s first choice; if they could run on a platform of prosperity, economic growth, full employment and declining debt, they would. Unfortunately, they don’t have that option, so they have to resort to personal attacks on Romney. One risk they run is that this is likely to become obvious to voters. Every time they launch another personal attack, Romney will say that Obama is resorting to vilification because he can’t talk about his record. The truth of that proposition is likely to be evident, so that each personal attack becomes one more reminder that Obama would rather talk about anything than his own record. If this becomes the conventional wisdom, Obama is sunk.

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