There is a decidedly pedestrian character to the Obama campaign team. David Axelrod, the top political advisor to Obama, and the woman who very much would like to have Axelrod’s job, Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter, prefer low attacks on character to serious policy debate, the low road to the high road. Axelrod and Cutter are veteran character assassins whose overzealous attacks reveal much about the President’s campaign and the President himself. The defeat Obama experienced in the first presidential debate was devastating to his campaign and provoked Axelrod and Cutter to search for and cling desperately to all manner of personal attacks against Romney. Such choices and people are why Americans find politics revolting. Immediately after the debate, when Axelrod and Cutter took to the airwaves in the Obama spin room, they spoke with nervous energy, rifling through one attack on character after another until the next day they met with the President and agreed upon a single attack line: Romney is dishonest and stole the debate through dishonesty.
The first presidential debate will have a lasting, adverse effect on public perception of Obama. The Obama political advisors know that and fear that greatly. On the face of it, Romney not only stood toe to toe with Obama but actually appeared more presidential in every respect. Romney maintained good posture, looked the President straight in the eye, had a grasp of the facts, was resolute in his commitment to specific policy objectives, and remained focused throughout. Obama looked down often, avoided eye contact with Romney, marshaled few facts in support of vague commitments, meandered off topic, and lacked focus and vision. The effect on the electorate was profound. Some sixty-two million Americans watched the debate and a majority of them thought on all points of character Romney equaled or exceeded Obama. On all points of domestic policy, they also perceived Romney the superior, and they by over sixty percent believed Romney to have won the debate. The public perception favoring Romney’s character disturbs the Obama people the most, because it is upon that reed that they believe the election may turn.
Much depends on appearances in Presidential debates but something more devastating came to the fore: Romney appeared passionate about tackling unemployment and the national debt; Obama appeared disinterested.
On the substance, Romney was resolute. He said he would not raise taxes on the middle class. He said he would reduce tax rates to encourage job creation and would close tax loopholes, the upshot of both he said would be neither an increase nor a decrease in revenues. He said he would cut regulation; he said he would consolidate agencies; and he said he would reduce the federal work force through attrition. While those plans are not anywhere near the extent of reduction in the federal government required to reduce federal spending dramatically, they are clearly contrary to the President’s position. Despite all the cries from team Obama that Romney lacked specifics, the President revealed himself void of specificity and apparently bankrupt of ideas. He reiterated that he would increase taxes on those earning $250,000 or more and would favor federal spending programs in an effort to increase jobs. In other words, he would travel down the very same failed path that he has traveled down for the last four years to no avail, increasing the deficit and adding to the national debt while not reducing unemployment or revivifying the private sector. He would sustain the regulatory state that now blocks market entry, favors large firms over small ones, and picks winners and losers in the market.
Obama had few retorts to the many pointed challenges presented by Romney. He did not defend his record beyond the superficial, and he did not rebut any significant charge, including that he wasted vast sums of money on failed green energy investments to companies often backed by Obama campaign supporters and cronies.
Romney astutely observed that if you increase taxes on the wealthy, you will add to unemployment, which will increase federal outlays and increase the deficit and the national debt. As I have explained in Restore the Republic, an ever expanding federal government necessarily squeezes out of existence all manner of private enterprise, particularly small and medium sized businesses, adding to unemployment which, in turn, increases the deficit and debt. In other words, Obama’s plan is destined to exacerbate the national debt and unemployment precisely because it depends on growing a parasitic entity, the federal government, rather than removing that parasite and growing the only entity that can expand the economy and produce self-sustaining employment opportunity, the market.
Reeling from the first debate, the Obama team now returns to what is its favorite mechanism when the going gets tough: pointed attacks on personal character. Obama, Axelrod, Cutter, Ploufe, and the whole cast of campaign operatives have united on one theme: Romney is dishonest and stole the debate through dishonesty. They believe that by loudly and repeatedly condemning Romney as a liar at every opportunity, regardless of the facts, they will convince the gullible or will at least diminish the skyrocketing new favorables of Romney that they think portend Obama doom on election day unless the public is disabused of them. One thing is made manifest through these histrionics, campaign Obama will apparently do anything to win this election.
Likely this zealous condemnation will backfire, transparent as it is following the President’s worst public performance to date. In the first twenty-four hours after the debate, the desperation in Axelrod and Cutter came to the fore. Interviewed by CNN’s Candy Crowley, a red eyed, dry mouthed Axelrod grasped at different grounds for attacking Romney. It was not that Obama lost the debate, it was that Romney changed his position on taxes. It was not that Obama lost the debate, it was that Romney lied about the facts. It was not that Obama lost the debate, it was that Romney rudely interrupted and stole the show (never mind that Obama consumed more minutes of debate talking time than Romney). Likewise, when she was interviewed by CNN’s Erin Burnett, Cutter argued that Romney lied profusely; team Obama expected Romney would be an aggressive debater, she said, but team Obama “didn’t expect an aggressively dishonest debater.”
When you cannot defend your record, when you have no clear plan to reduce unemployment or save the nation from financial ruin, when your candidate lacks a vision that inspires, and when your challenger has established himself to have greater zeal and commitment to do what you have not, then about the only place left to go is to attack your challenger’s character.
The choice to go there, however, boomerangs because it reflects the baseness of your own character. To be sure, a campaign that seeks to deflect attention away from some of the most critical issues America has ever faced to condemn the character of an opponent is a campaign that wallows in the mire. The President has chosen that course. It is a base reflection of the depravity of his own soul.
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When we think of the ideal President, we think of George Washington, a man of impeccable character, of the utmost integrity. He embodied the American ideals of hard work, virtue, honesty, courage, and charity. When candidates for the highest office in the land deviate from that ideal, they disappoint the American people, revealing imperfections that invite the electorate to view them not as the extraordinary people they wish to lead the nation but as pedestrian. By taking the character assassination route, Obama may think he is succeeding but instead he is proving as he has many times before that he lacks the character, vision, and leadership to be President of the United States.