At some point in the past, most mainstream political observers, against all evidence to the contrary, came to the belief that President Barack Obama is not a negative campaigner. It's not entirely inane, after all. Obama spent a long, long, LONG time attempting to govern with an eye toward compromise -- he seems to have been the last man in Washington to figure out that compromise was always impossible. Still, it's like every political reporter forgot all the ads they watched and all the calls they took from David Plouffe back in 2008.
But if Obama benefited from having this reputation in the past, it started to blow back on him this month as Team Obama Reelect fully committed itself to the battle with GOP nominee Mitt Romney. In recent weeks, the Obama campaign has used this low-engagement period of the election season to take a few lines of attack out for a walk, to get a sense of what traction it would have when the high-engagement period of the election year resumes after the summer.
It hasn't gone as planned: the media has spent more time fretting about Obama's negativity than it has on any of the arguments that were being mounted. Was Obama going too negative? Was it too soon? OH NO WHAT IS HAPPENING, IN POLITICS? And so the Obama campaign was broadly deemed to have "stumbled out of the gates."
All of this presented Romney with a unique opportunity to come into June as the high-minded, positive candidate. Out of the gutter, above the fray, just talkin' economy with the folks, Obama is a nice guy who is in over his head. There seemed to have been a general consensus among Romney allies that this was working. Karl Rove went to great lengths to ensure that the New York Times slathered Crossroads/GPS in this sort of lip gloss, after all.
So we're at a loss to explain why Romney picked this week to cede this advantage, or at the very least risk it by crawling down into the gutter himself. He closes out the month with a series of stunts that come across as either base or weird or vindictive, and none were absolutely necessary.
First, he made a big show of palling around with Donald Trump, who is quite simply the most unnecessary political surrogate in human history. He only tracks up the room with loony birther dirt and the phlegmy glaze of celebrity at its most tawdry. Second, his campaign team staged a shout-down of David Axelrod in Massachusetts, inexplicably and explicitly inviting a comparison to the "Brooks Brothers riots" of 2000. And third, he took his Solyndra beef to a weird and creepy height by stalking the company at its former headquarters, and giving out a deeply weird, tin-foil hatty explanation about why the appearance had to be kept so secret.
Why did he do these things? Well, the Solyndra-stalking is perhaps the easiest part to explain. If Mitt Romney wants to make a crony-capitalist argument, he has to have Solyndra. He's certainly not going to pick on anyone who's high up in Timothy Geithner's rolodex -- to those who have gotten off scott-free in the Obama administration, Romney's only promised to make even scott-er and free-est. So Romney needs to make as much out of whatever stench he can generate over the Solyndra loan guarantee.
But, there are limits. Did it make sense for Romney to personally visit a failed company and gloat over its wreckage? Whatever you think of the taxpayer loan guarantee, it's pretty clear that no one at Solyndra was doing anything evil. Like many companies, they thought they could make the world a slightly better place and make some money for the efforts. Going full-ghoul over the company's corpse only reinforces the Obama campaign's Bain frame as Romney as the callous capitalist. And the campaign's insistence that his Solyndra appearance had to be shrouded in secrecy because the Obama team would stop it somehow was, as Rebecca Schoenkopf pointed out, the stuff of "black helicopters" and "FEMA trains."
Nevertheless, Romney needs something from Solyndra. It's less clear that he needs to provoke a series of escalations where ordinary campaign appearances get constantly shouted down by angry partisans. The Romney campaign has said that it is only responding in retaliation to its own events being disrupted, but as Steve Benen points out, the "smart response would have been for the candidate to say, 'If people are going to try to disrupt public events, that's up to them. I'm running for president of the United States, and I don't have time to concern myself with who is or isn't heckling David Axelrod.'"
Instead, Romney staffers brought vuvuzelas to the event. Seriously! There are very few Americans who look at a vuvuzela-blowin' fool and don't think, "Ugh, what an a-hole."
It's tough to fathom why Romney didn't just let himself retain the high-road while the media was depicting the Obama team as stumbling down the side of a trench. Perhaps Romney understands how brutal the Obama team can be, and he wanted to send a quick signal to let them know he's ready to knuckle up. It's also possible that Romney doesn't see any real value in staying above the fray while he can, preferring instead to move from tactic to tactic without regard for an overall message. (By staying focused on political tactics, Romney postpones the reckoning that could come if he's ever forced to actually reveal his plans or policy priorities.)
We sort of hope that the political back-and-forth doesn't sink so quickly into the mire, and we definitely would prefer that one side or the other -- if there really is this sort of crazy confrontation going on at everyone's events -- have the class to stand down with their noisy bullshit so that we can actually hear what these men have to say about America. So we'll hold out hope that maybe Romney's gone in this direction just because he's been lately hanging out with Donald Trump. It seems to us that prolonged exposure to that tangelo-skinned blowhard faux-mogul would make anyone turn tacky.
SHOULD THE MEDIA COVER DONALD TRUMP? To all of you bellowing "NO!" at this question, we sympathize. And we hope that you have noticed that Your Speculatronners have, in the past, passed on many opportunities to talk about Donald Trump in this space, because we know it's a sideshow -- a geek-show, really -- that distracts from issues of greater importance. And this week, the ratio of Trump-to-Syria coverage, for example, was pretty badly flipped.
Of course, the Romney campaign wanted, and got, that coverage. But were news consumers served? Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Walter Shapiro argues that they were, saying that "the Donald Trump birther circus this week serves as a reminder that ... McCarthy-era lessons need to be re-taught to every generation":
What we are dealing with here are claims that the Kenyan-born president of the United States willfully subverted the Constitution for his own ambition. Think of it--that is somewhere between Richard Nixon's impeachment and treason. That is why the Joe McCarthy analogy (a comparison that I use, at most, once a decade) is so apt. Campaign reporters dealing with the vitriol from Trump and other birthers should ask themselves, "How would I have covered a major 1950s political figure who echoed the John Birch Society's charges that President Dwight Eisenhower was a knowing agent of the international Communist conspiracy?"
The countering argument, of course, is that if you've got a yen to take a critical eye at Romney, the better place to train it is on his "surreal arguments" about the economy, which unlike Trump, may still actually matter come September.
THE #WIRECALL FUNDAMENTALS THAT DOOM BARRETT: A lot has been made this week of various internal polls that Barrett's team has released, indicating a close race. Most outside polling, however, suggests that Walker's going to win. And there have been two debates, which were "won" by whoever's surrogates you happened to be talking to at the time they were saying they'd won.
We certainly won't be stunned if next week's recall election is close. After all, Scott Walker is angling to be the first governor to survive a recall election. On the other hand, there have only ever been two other examples to draw from -- Gray Davis in California and Lynn Frazier in North Dakota. (Arizona Governor Evan Meacham was successfully impeached before he could be recalled.) And yet, we are going to predict that Walker will prevail, for three fairly fundamental reasons:
1. It's a rematch: Wisconsin has been to this dance already: in 2010, Tom Barrett matched up with Scott Walker and got drubbed. We've looked for a clear and compelling reason why he should be expected to prevail in a rematch and can't find one. Going back to Barrett puts the actual voters back in the crosshairs -- would-be fencesitters go to the polls thinking, "So, who's to blame for what's gone wrong here? Is it Walker's fault, or is it mine, for not voting for Barrett two years ago." It's tough to get voters to admit they've made a mistake. If they'd been offered a fresh choice, they'd be immunized from having to point the finger of blame at themselves.
2. Barrett and the Unions: Barrett, frankly, isn't a compelling candidate where the organizing idea of the recall is concerned -- a fight for collective bargaining rights. Barrett's post-election role as mayor of Milwaukee carries complications, best described by Abe Sauer, who dinged Barrett for "using Walker's public employee union cuts to help balance Milwaukee's budget and then having the giant testicles to run against his union-busting policies." At last night's debate, collective bargaining got a hearing, but Barrett's otherwise been slow to carry the Union mantle, preferring instead to run a generic, good-neighbor campaign. Frankly, we think that Barrett's one of those Democrats that you suspect might actually admire the war on the public sector to a certain degree. That's a recipe for keeping your partisans at home.
3. Maybe we have to admit that the GOP's experiment worked: Let's remember that Walker was one of many Republican governors who executed a cynical post-recession plan: with America's middle class feeling high anxiety and facing extreme economic dislocation after the financial crash, Walker successfully managed to get all of that populist anger redirected away from the Wall Streeters who'd caused the crash. Instead, he got the members of the middle class at each others' throats, turning that anger and angst into a battle between all the have-nots over who had more of a shrinking portion of pie. We've since seen a video unearthed about Walker's intention to wedge private and public sector unions from one another, but will that be the antidote to the widespread poison?
TOM FRIEDMAN CRACKS: There was a watershed moment in American journalism this week, as The New York Times' correspondent from CloudCuckooLand, Tom Friedman, at last admitted that President Barack Obama had attempted a "grand bargain" on the deficit front: "Obama," he writes, "tried a version of this with his 'grand bargain' talks with the House speaker." And the Saints Of Common Sense wept, with joy! The rest of the Friedman column deals with Obama's limitations as a "storyteller," which we agree with -- just watch a replay of Bill Clinton in Wisconsin, today. But Friedman gets our dander up anew, with this:
Think about this: Obama didn't just save the auto industry from bankruptcy. Two years later, he also got all the top U.S. automakers to agree to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, from 27.5 m.p.g. today. As Popular Mechanics put it, this "is the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history." It will drive innovation, save money and make America less dependent on petro-dictators. Did you know Obama did this?
Did you know this, Thomas? Because you have this regular column in a major newspaper, which ostensibly could have been used to "tell this story" at any point in the past few years! Think about that.
SWING STATES TIGHTEN: The recent round of NBC/Marist polls point to a tightening of the race in various crucial battleground states. But Steve Kornacki notes the most dire news for President Obama: the "new numbers throw cold water on the idea that strong swing state economies might give the president a boost." (This was before Friday's jobs report darkened the economic clouds even further.)
CROSSROADS CROSSHAIRS: Cameron Joseph reports that the super PAC wars have come to Missouri, where the GOP hopes to pick up a Senate seat from the vulnerable Claire McCaskill. As you might expect, tying McCaskill to Obama is the strategy -- the term "Obama-Claire" figures fairly prominently. Meanwhile, the Obama administration probably wishes McCaskill had been the sort of ally that Karl Rove's group is making her out to be.
BETTER KNOW A THIRD PARTY CANDIDATE: Via Dan Amira, meet Virgil Goode, the super-conservative former Virginia Representative who is running on the Constitution Party's ballot. Such as it is, anyway -- the party is only on the ballot in 17 states, and Virginia is not among them. But keep an eye on this: should Goode get on in Virginia, it could make the Commonwealth a safe state for Obama. (Goode, for his part, believes he would pull equally from Obama and Romney, but this is very unlikely.)
VEEPSTAKES: Who doesn't want to be Mitt Romney's vice president this week? Jeb Bush, that's who! Per Chris Moody, a Bush spokeswoman was forced to respond to a Yahoo News story that noted that some Italian news agency suggested Jeb was in the running. "The reporter pulled from some old U.S. news reports. I've asked the reporter to adjust his piece so it's clear he's reporting from US News, not an interview. Nothing has changed, Gov. Bush will not be candidate for VP."
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]