I’m fine with this campaign’s swiftly approaching swing into caustic nastiness, but I swear to God, if this election taints Back to the Future for me, I’m going to throw myself off the Washington Monument.
As Team Obama ramps up to the general election by escalating its political sniping at unloved ’90s tycoon Mitt Romney, it appears one strategy is to put him behind the wheel of a certain time-traveling DeLorean. Last Thursday, Vice President Biden said, “Americans know we can’t go back to the future, back to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone.” The previous night, Obama’s top campaign chiefs, Jim Messina and David Axelrod, used the phrase repeatedly with reporters in describing Romney’s economic vision. “Mitt Romney wants to go back to the future,” Messina said, to policies that “benefited the few but crashed our economy.” The homage is kinda vaguely nonsensical, but as long as there’s no permanent association between this ugh-y campaign and the cinematic ode to the wonder of flux capacitors, I guess I’m OK with it.
To be sure, the re-election campaign is wise to caution reporters, donors and voters that Romney’s stated desire to “restore” America to its past “values” is a dressed-up call to regressive reactionaryism. Prepare yourselves for constant reminders that a President Romney would offer a highlight reel of awful—a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape glimpses of policies past, from Bush-era inequality-maximizing economics to the 1950s-throwback squelching of women and minority rights. And so it’s no surprise that when the Obama campaign rolled out its official slogan this week, this basically was its argument. Following a seven-minute highlight reel, the theme appears, with disyllabic dint: “Forward.” It’s a bit punchier than “Change we can believe in” (or “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” for that matter) and provides as an added bonus for grammatical pedants a possibly permanent corrective to the watery, Brit-tastic “forwards.”
By settling on a central narrative—forward, not backward—the battlefield for 2012 has now all but taken shape, which means a major shift is coming. Before early May, things were amusing and eyerollingly droll and only occasionally teeth-gnashing. Now with the pretenders out of the picture, Romney v. Obama is going to pick up the pace, and the aura of the thing is going to switch from “goofy” to “straight-up mean.” It seems unlikely that Campaign 2012 is going to be a particularly fun election, colored by a joyful sense of possibility. The depressing reality is that we’re currently standing on the precipice of an old-fashioned slog—a grinding, soul-sandblasting carpet-bomb attack of negativity stretching far into the horizon.
This is true for largely two reasons. First, the time when tens of thousands regularly rallied for Obama stump speeches is regrettably mere prologue at this point. And not only is Romney himself a wet cashmere blanket on the trail, but his corporate-cautious, brain-cog likely prevents choosing a running mate that’d sweep energetic sunshine onto his ticket. This means that surprisingly high-wattage campaigners like Obama or Sarah Palin are unlikely to materialize and amaze us this go-around. Don’t be surprised when the two candidates—drenched in skepticism and weary disgust by broad swaths of the electorate—put their focus on reminding the public why the other guy sucks, hoping to don the mantle of the lesser evil. Second, this election season is going to stretch on and on and on in its absurdity, like some kind of civic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Both camps are going to have Scrooge McDuck-like coffers, giving them the resources to wage intensive trench warfare without respite over the next half-year. Political ads, surrogate attacks, distracting diversions based on the day’s ginned-up squabble: this election is going to be one endless traffic jam of barfy political nonsense. Picture the man painted around a Grecian urn, constantly sprinting forward and never getting anywhere. It won’t be long until the repetitious tedium strips away meaning from overplayed words and ideas, creating a disorienting fog of déjà vu’s reverse phenomenon, jamais vu, as we lose ourselves in the day-to-day familiarity of campaign baloney.
This war of emotional attrition is the game plan for the GOP. Romney has survived an ugly primary and—while that process may have made him, you know, the single least liked presidential nominee in modern history—cultivating his weapon of powerful insincerity has also made him savagely carnivorous. The candidate has learned that the blunt muscle of his campaign will prevail over any truths in his path. Defeating Obama is not a task Romney approaches with sensitivity or informality—he’s back in his familiar slash-and-burn financier element. In other words, Mitt Romney sees something worth buying and he’s going in for the kill. Romney’s slithery, sans gêne assault simply underscores his campaign’s well-marketed brand of loathing disingenuousness.
To wit: we know the key element of this election will be Obama’s economic record in office. This is why Romney asks his crowds if they’re “better off than they were three and a half years ago”—which while totally biting someone else’s shtick is fallacious on its face. Three and a half years ago Obama was in the final days of his presidential campaign, months away from taking a seat behind the Resolute Desk. This is no accident by the Romney camp: the recession officially began in December 2007 with the worst coming at the end of 2008, according to government economic data. Obama’s inauguration was in January 2009. In short, Romney has decided to dump the worst of the economic collapse in Obama’s lap even though he wasn’t yet president. (If it helps you, think of it like blaming Theo Epstein for the Cubs’ World Series drought.) Unfortunately, this strategy has a habit of working—political scientists have found that voters assess politicians and their economic judgments on short-term views. Electorates worldwide have been rising up lately against incumbents of left, right, and center; the global economic crisis hasn’t cared all that much for political ideology. But the facts are no matter: Romney’s sly dog-whistle speaks to his pissed-off allies, and many of them will heed that call.
But however the campaign ends, the GOP fury will likely slip into acrid disaffection. Time will water down the campaign-peaked antagonism, but the revulsion toward President Obama, toward liberalism, toward the government will remain. This is the outcome of the Republicans’ branding: a confused odium that prevents half the country from seeing D.C. as a place of potential good. There’s a story in the recent Tom Friedman book relayed by GOP strategist Mike Murphy who describes a campaign veteran’s advice to him. While negative ads do work, Murphy recalls being told, there’s a reason McDonalds never runs negative ads against Burger King, saying their burgers are riddled with maggots. “It might have worked for a year or two,” Murphy says, “but then no one would have eaten another hamburger.” Murphy, who’s worked for Romney and John McCain, says the old hand concluded with a piece of advice: “Never destroy the category.” Friedman notes that “just at a time when we need politics in America to be at its most credible and constructive in order to define and pursue the national interest, ‘we’ve destroyed the category.’” By focusing on short-term political assaults, this campaign season could very well tarnish the brand of politics itself, leaving us instead with a useless expression of a long and bitter campaign’s emotional state.