WASHINGTON -- This presidential campaign is shaping up as one of the most personally nasty in modern times -- and more quickly than experts thought it would. "It's only July and the two candidates are going after each other in a personal way," said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "If you are looking for something new, that's it: how early it is."
For the most part, and most of the time, vicious public campaign attacks are carried out in advertising (Think: the "Daisy" ad in '64, Willie Horton in '88 and Swift Boating in '04) and are paid for, increasingly, by PACS with no official ties to the candidate or his campaign. The mano-a-mano stuff tends to happen late, and often almost by accident in debates or the give-and-take of the daily wars.
But, as even casual observers know, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama already are in choreographed hand-to-hand combat mode. The GOP's presumptive nominee has angrily demanded an apology from Obama himself for a campaign staffer's suggestions that Romney may have committed a felony by misstating his role at Bain Capital in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Romney called the remarks "outrageous" and "beneath the dignity" of Obama and the presidency.
Not only did the president not apologize, he all but scoffed at his foe. Obama did not pawn off the controversy onto his campaign staff or position himself above the fray as a sitting president with much more lofty work to do.
Instead, Obama hit back like a methodical counter-puncher in a mid-ring, 15-round slugfest. If Romney wants to run on his record as a business leader, Obama said, he needs to be an "open book" about how he made every dime of his money -- meaning, he needs to release all of his tax returns. And the public needs to know, according to the president, that Bain's role was not to create jobs, but to earn profit for its institutional and wealthy shareholders, often by outsourcing and/or "offshoring" American jobs and stashing the resulting cash in tax-advantaged accounts abroad.
The Romney team launched a new personal attack on Monday, accusing Obama of practicing "cronyism" in awarding government contracts.
There are several reasons why the 2012 race has gotten so churlish and chippy so fast.
Both candidates are running what, by cynical design and process of elimination, are negative campaigns. Romney, a shape-shifter short on consistent ideology or detailed ideas, has one essential message: the president has failed to turn around the American economy. He would just as soon disappear and let the president run against himself -- and away from his own hard-to-defend record.
Obama's key strategic imperative is to destroy Romney as a credible replacement; indeed to portray him as a DANGEROUS replacement. "Romney isn't the solution," the president's new TV ad declares. "Romney is the problem." That has been and will be the mantra.
But there are other roots and reasons.
The first is that Romney set the dial on "vicious" in the primary season, as GOP observers including ad pollster Matthew Dowd have said. Yes, there were a few positive Mitt TV advertisements; Ann Romney smiled her winsome smile. But for the most part, the Romneyans and their allies spent the season unloading daisy cutters on the hapless likes of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.
That left bitterness and scars among the GOPers, some of whom are reluctant to join Mitt in demanding that the president play nice now. And Romney's attack strategy sent a message to the hard-line Rush Limbaughs of the world. If an icon of the Establishment such as Romney could behave like an attack dog, then they could take to the airwaves and behave like werewolves. On the radio Monday, Limbaugh let loose, charging that the president had been indoctrinated into communism as a child and was now "a man who hates America."
The president's trip into the trenches inspires the same thing in his followers. He used to be the cool "No drama Obama." Now he, too, wants to create dramatic conflict.
The two candidates add to the personal intensity of the conflict because they both make personal appeals. Neither is at heart an ideologue. Both are essentially selling themselves and their life stories -- which means that if you attack their records, you inevitably attack them for who they are as people.
Obama's calling card always has been less as a Democrat or legislator with a detailed program than as a change agent created by his own saga. He talks of his administration in the first person singular. Romney is selling his own biography: a businessman above politics, offering his independence and his fortune as proof of what he can do for the country.
Super PACS and other "independent" big money also make things nastier. Since they can't coordinate with the candidate or his campaign, it is easier and safer for them to freelance by attacking the enemy of their friends. So most "independent" TV spots are "negative" or, as they say euphemistically, "comparative."
Presidents, Beschloss told me, tend to stay aloof from personal attacks on their challengers, especially in early in the campaign. In 1984, Ronald Reagan rarely mentioned Democrat Walter Mondale by name, for example. But the Gipper didn't need to mention "Fritz," who was never a serious threat.
When presidents do get personal and down in the trenches, it tends to be late in the campaign -- and they tend to do so when they are behind. Jimmy Carter gave a speech in 1980 darkly hinting at social chaos and racial division if Reagan won. President George H.W. Bush in 1992 executed some personal digs at Gov. Bill Clinton, calling him "Ozone Man" and suggesting that everything he knew about American foreign policy he had "learned at the International House of Pancakes."
Obama is even or is slightly ahead in the tracking polls, but he is not taking any chances. He isn't playing the blithe and above-it-all Reagan of 1984. Nor will the president be running any "Morning in America" ads.
It's not that kind of year.