GOODMAN: Nastiest presidential race ever, or business as usual?
I heard it again this week as I chatted with White House press corps colleagues: This is turning into the ugliest presidential race ever.
But is it truly any uglier than past races?
As the verbal brawls heat up between President Barack Obama and Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, there’s no question the barbs are getting increasingly acid-tipped. Each correctly accuses the other of running a negative campaign rife with personal attacks.
And indeed it’s true: In just the past week, Obama’s campaign has suggested Romney might have committed a felony if he was at the helm of Bain Capital for two years longer than he reported to authorities; they also demanded he release more tax returns to shed some light on his finances. Romney demanded an apology; Obama has refused to give him one.
A Romney surrogate returned fire within days, saying he wished Obama “would learn how to be an American.” John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, later apologized for his choice of words, unprompted by any demands from Team Obama.
But it seems to me every recent presidential campaign has earned the moniker of “nastiest ever.” American presidential campaigns have long been unseemly, making Canada’s most recent campaign trail dust-ups between Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and the late Jack Layton seem almost demure by comparison.
Remember Al Gore versus George W. Bush in 2000 (a race that followed a particularly down-and-dirty primary battle that saw John McCain fall victim to some vile Bush campaign shenanigans in South Carolina, involving the Arizona senator’s adopted daughter)? And not only was the presidential campaign itself vitriolic, but the aftermath — when no clear winner had emerged and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ultimately resulted in Bush becoming president — had Americans feuding with their friends and neighbours and protesting in the streets for weeks afterward.
How about Bush versus John Kerry in 2004? That’s when the infamous Swiftboaters accused Kerry of distorting his Vietnam record, all but sinking his White House aspirations. The Swiftboat allegations were later discredited, but “swiftboating” has become a verb in American political vernacular, with some even suggesting this week that Obama was swiftboating Romney with his attacks on his Bain Capital tenure.
Obama versus McCain four years ago wasn’t exactly pretty, with race-tinged rhetoric occasionally rearing its ugly head at some Republican events, prompting McCain to famously — and nobly — rebuke a woefully ignorant supporter at a town hall who pronounced Obama an “Arab.”
So is 2012 really any uglier? The most surprising element to me is that Obama and Romney themselves, and not just their campaigns, are getting into the ring. Because for all their political differences, the two men have a fair share of similarities: They prefer to take the high road and let their surrogates do the dirty work. They’re both mild-mannered and keep their emotions in check; they’ve both been described as aloof. They’re known to be uncomfortable with nasty politics, though that distaste doesn’t prevent them from hiring people who excel at the practice.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, even predicted not too long ago that a solution to global warming was finally at hand. “Let these two campaign incessantly for six months and we’ll lower the temperature by a few degrees,” he quipped.
And yet here we are, still months from the presidential election, and both haven’t hesitated to spew venom, accusing their opponent of being unworthy of office, dishonest, unprincipled and weak. Not only that, but I’ve recently seen increasingly common, and heretofore uncharacteristic, flashes of anger strike both men when discussing their rival for the White House.
It seems American presidential politics, with its mammoth financial stakes along with the obvious political consequences, brings out the worst in even the politicians known as being boring nice guys.
And so the rest of the 2012 race will likely be more of the same — an exercise in personal attacks with little discussion about the crucial issues plaguing the country during one of its most trying periods in recent history.
And that’s what’s really ugly.
Addendum to last week’s column: I was remiss in not acknowledging that Nova Scotians, perhaps more than any other Canadians, are well familiar with the perils of a private electricity utility. And to those who emailed to call me an air conditioning hypocrite: I left two cats at home with a cat-sitter dropping by periodically while on vacation, so had the AC programmed to come on if the temperature indoors went above 32C. With the house locked up and no way to keep windows open or run fans all day, it seemed the humane thing to do.
Lee-Anne Goodman is White House correspondent for The Canadian Press.