President Obama should pay attention to something President Bill Clinton said the other day. Appearing on "Feherty
," the excellent and entertaining profile show on the Golf Channel, Clinton answered a question by the host, David Feherty, who asked whether we can have heroes today such as those we had in the early '60s.
"I think in this warts-and-all world we're living in, you know that we can't forget to trust people, that we can't believe that they will always respond to people's failures as the press wishes them to if the press takes out after them.
"The ordinary person is a lot smarter than that. They can admire someone for what they did that is good and absorb the fact that they weren't perfect. Whereas a lot of people in the world we live in today say, 'If I could just show people that person's not perfect. If I could just show them that, I could take 'em down. And I'd somehow be elevated by taking somebody else down.'
The average person can see through that in a heartbeat."
Clinton probably had himself in mind, for he certainly hopes that history remembers him for his successes and not for his personal failures; yet he also was addressing the concept of attack politics. How do voters respond to a politician's personal attacks on an opponent? Do the voters elevate the attacker? Or can they divine the politics of an attack, analyzing its mertis, and judge each person by his or her strengths as well as weaknesses?
President Barack Obama's reelection campaign has been running advertisements attacking the presumed Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, for several months now. Last week Obama's supporters ran a television commercial that made the claim that Romney eliminated steelworker jobs by draining the blood of a steel mill and allowing the company to die.
Will the public see that attack ad as an unfair, biased and desperate measure, or will voters accept it at face value and support Obama?
The answer won't be known until November, but a look back at the Republican presidential debate season is instructive.
During the seemingly endless series of debates, several candidates took turns attacking Romney, who was perceived as the frontrunner. The attacks typically mischaracterized Romney's opposition to Obamacare. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry all took turns criticizing the perceived frontrunner, usually claiming that Romney could not be serious about eliminating Obamacare because he had supported a mandate to buy health insurance in Massachusetts, where Romney had served as governor.
Typically the attacker claimed that there was very little difference between the Massachusetts reform and the 2,700-page partisan monstrosity that was misnamed the Affordable Care Act and was originally designed to be socialized medicine. While the Massachusetts bill had been supported by a large majority of residents, Obamacare had been opposed by most Americans, who considered it a job killer that had passed through legislative trickery.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's attacks were particularly hypocritical because he would tout states' rights one moment and then attack the right of Massachusetts to require its residents to buy health insurance the next moment.
Gingrich seemed shocked when he was targeted by Romney's Super PAC, which pointed out that Gingrich himself had once supported a health insurance mandate and claiming that the former Speaker of the House had been hypocritical over other issues as well.
Gingrich then embarked on an embarrassing campaign to attack Romney over his CEO role at Bain Capital, where he had made his fortune by consistently growing the investments of his venture capitalist shareholders. Many Republicans saw this campaign as anti-capitalist and wondered how Gingrich could justify his company's $1.5 million fee for consulting government-backed mortgage giants after once railing against politicians who profited from their contacts and influence.
Rick Santorum was incensed when Romney approved an ad that pointed out how badly he was defeated in Pennsylvania when he lost his U.S. senate seat. Santorum kept firing that there was no difference between Romneycare, as he termed the Massachusetts health care mandate, and Obamacare. He gambled that voters would ignore Romney's explanations of the bills' significant differences and even criticized Romney for pointing out the differences. He lost.
Which brings us to Obama's attack ad on Romney's handling of GST Steel. The ad featured former employees who had lost the job when the company went bankrupt in 2001, and they characterized Romney as an unfeeling vampire investor who cared more about money than about the workers.
Romney supporters pointed out that GST Steel had been on the verge of collapse when Bain Capital had resurrected it from otherwise certain death in 1993. The company did fine for a few years before a flood of cheap, subsidized foreign steel caused GST and 17 other steel mills, including Bethlehem Steel, the largest mill in the country, to succumb. The ad conveniently failed to mention that Romney had left the company two years before it filed for bankruptcy.
Never mind that Romney's job was not to create jobs anyway but to find opportunities to increase his investors' holdings. That was a job that he did remarkably well.
Never mind that Bain Capital under Romney nurtured other companies into fabulous successes, creating thousands of jobs.
And never mind that there has been a net job loss under Obama, which is not a surprise to economists who thought that the federal government's last reponse to a recession should be tripling its debt, increasing the size and scope of the government and burdening businesses with an increasingly complicated and incomprehensible regulations.
As Obama took office, the country was facing financial disaster, and Congress, along with President Bush, took major steps to prevent a collapse. While some conservatives and a majority of the American public objected, Bush and Congress acted. Now, just four years later, most Americans don't realize it was Bush and not Obama who bailed out the banks, initiated a bailout of GM, bailed out the housing industry and approved the first economic stimulus fund.
The reasons for the economic crisis are varied, complicated and difficult to blame on either party. Suffice to say that it occurred at a time when the president was Republican and Congress was controlled by Democrats.
But the fact remains that many economists think the best way to stimulate the economy would be to make an environment that is more conducive to business, and yet Obama and the Democrat Congress took actions that created a climate that was less conducive to business by creating Obamacare and creating a regulatory nightmare for businesses, increasing federal spending to the point that the national debt has ballooned to $15 trillion, which is almost universally considered to lead into a coming crisis of inflation.
Obama and Democrats often refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and laud him as the president whose big-government "The New Deal" cured the economy that was ruined during the Great Depression. They cited FDR's alleged success as a reason to increase the size and influence of the federal government and to raise taxes on investors, corporations and business owners.
The public might have fallen for this line 20 years ago, but now, with easy accessibility to the Internet, a profusion of political talk shows, the advent and success of Fox News and particularly of its opinion shows, alternative views have injected themselves into public consciousness. Citizens today are more informed and don't matter-of-factly accept the political rhetoric of the mainstream media.
They realize that FDR's policies deepened and lengthened the Great Depression and did not shorten or mitigate it, and that it was only after a four-year World War II that the economy rebounded.
The stock market crash of 1929 took place just before FDR's first term and did not end until after he died during his fourth term 15 years later. The public now understands why some historians say that FDR and the progressives of the day used the Great Depression as a reason or even an excuse to grow the federal government, seize privately held gold and quadruple taxes on the wealthy. Citizens today are unwilling to wait 15 years for the current recession to end.
Obama and his supporters are attacking Romney on another front, which is his stance that marriage is a government-sanctioned covenant between one man and one woman. Their first attacks began on May 10. Curiously, just three days earlier, Obama's own press secretary had told the world that the president's position on gay marriage had not changed; in other words, Obama had maintained exactly the same positition as Romney. Yet on May 9 Obama announced that his thoughts "had evolved" into a support of gay marriage. He began attacking Romney the next day for holding the position that Obama himself had publicly maintained since 2008.
Will the public see through Obama's hypocritical attacks? The polls seem to indicate that it will. As of today Obama is down from two to seven points in several polls. If our first truly black (well half black) president wants a second term, he might be forced to run on his own record and not by attacking his opponent. The public also isn't buying Obama's thought evolution with two-thirds of Americans believing that the change in his stance can be ascribed to his need to raise money from gay groups and on an increasing acceptance of gay marriage in the media and along the coasts.
Obama's attacks on Romney might have worked a few years ago when the "lamestream media" had a monopoly on the information that most citizens received about politics. But now facts that otherwise might be suppressed or minimized by the major newspapers, magazines and broadcast media are easily disseminated through talk radio, the opinion shows on Fox News and the Internet. Voters can easily find a candidate's own words on Youtube. Citizens who are truly independent thinkers are less likely to accept what they see in the increasingly partisan and liberal "lamestream media," as former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin likes to say.
Is Obama's record open to attack? Many observers say it is and that his inability to stimulate the economy, his positions on issues, his net job loss and other failures are fair game as long as attacks do not mischaracterize the truth. My bet is on the American public, who will see right through propaganda and discern which candidate supports measures that would improve their freedoms as well as their lot in life. And they won't be voting on whether a candidate once strapped a dog in its pet kennel on his station wagon or once enjoyed a meal of dog.
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