Politico reported on Tuesday that the Obama re-election team is planning a savage campaign of personal vilification against Mitt Romney.
Barack Obama's aides and advisers are preparing to center the president's reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney's character and business background, a strategy grounded in the early-stage expectation that the former Massachusetts governor is the likely GOP nominee.
The dramatic and unabashedly negative turn is the product of political reality. Obama remains personally popular, but pluralities in recent polling disapprove of his handling of his job, and Americans fear the country is on the wrong track. His aides are increasingly resigned to running for re-election in a glum nation. And so the candidate who ran on "hope" in 2008 has little choice four years later but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.
The attacks will tiptoe up to the line of outright anti-Mormon bigotry.
Democrats also plan to amplify what Obama strategists described as the "weirdness" quotient, the sum of awkward public encounters and famous off-kilter anecdotes, first among them the tale of Romney having strapped his dog to the roof of his car.
None of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney's personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith, but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent's supporters.
Perhaps this talk is a first draft of an actual campaign plan. But there's another possibility, and it's one that Team Romney should take very, very seriously: It's a mind game.
Thus far, Romney has resisted the temptation and the pressure to campaign against Barack Obama personally. Romney has not accused Obama of anti-Americanism. Romney has not mocked or ridiculed the First Lady. Romney has conscientiously eschewed any line of criticism that could be construed — or even cynically misrepresented — as racially coded. He has had no truck with Birtherism, he cold-shouldered the theory about Obama as a "Kenyan anti-colonialist," and he never confuses Obama and Osama.
Could it be that Obama plans a preliminary round of personal derision against Romney to bloody him, enrage him, push him off his own plan toward a battle that can only hurt him?
Romney has focused on the economic record, on jobs and growth. His message: I can deliver the recovery that has eluded Barack Obama.
Adhering to this message has demanded tremendous discipline. The Republican primary is waged in a media environment dominated by Fox News and talk radio. Those media outlets relentlessly pound home the theme: Obama is alien, hostile, and dangerous to the real America, its constitution, and its political traditions. Just this past week, a columnist at National Review suggested that Obama feels secret sympathy for the London rioters, and the cover of Rush Limbaugh's monthly letter represented Obama as a burglar, stuffing the white man's wealth into a bag of swag.
This kind of talk is odious in its own right. But leave aside political ethics and consider only the political practicalities. This kind of talk is deeply, deeply counter-productive.
For a president unsuccessfully grappling with a bad economy, Obama retains surprising personal popularity.
At the same time, the people assailing him remain some of the most disliked characters in American public life.
Finally, whatever they think of Obama's weak economic recovery, Americans remember that the collapse occurred before Obama took office, under the management of the party that now seeks to replace him. They may have lost faith that Obama can solve the country's problems. They will not be sold the claim that Obama caused those problems.
Pessimism about the economy is rife, and Obama's job approval is sagging. He could well lose the next presidential election to a candidate who can more credibly promise: "I can lead us out of this mess."
But there are two possible ways (OK, a lot more than two — but two obvious ways) to mess up such a campaign.
The first is to change the subject. Like all hard-pressed Democrats since Jimmy Carter in 1980, Obama will accuse Republicans of planning to destroy Medicare. Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to chuckle "there you go again," and the accusation bounced harmlessly away. This time, it will not be so easy. The Paul Ryan budget does indeed withdraw the Medicare guarantee from Americans under age 55, and congressional Republicans overwhelmingly voted their support for that budget.
On the other hand, a nominated Romney will be less vulnerable to the Medicare attack than any other Republican. He can say, "I didn't vote for the Ryan plan. And as governor of Massachusetts, I was the first leader in the nation to bring health coverage to all citizens of my state. I just took a beating in my party primary over that plan, but I refused to apologize for it. Frankly, Mr. President, looking at your performance in 2011, I think I can do a better job standing up against wrong-headed Republicans than you."
Now here's the other way that a Republican presidential campaign can go wrong. It can allow itself to be swayed by the rage and contempt for Obama that have consumed the conservative media world. It can be infiltrated by the emotions that Rush Limbaugh and so many other Republican talkers and authors have so successfully micro-targeted. It can forget that most potential anti-Obama voters see Obama as a disappointment, not a menace. It can snarl and sneer and vilify.
We have seen that behavior in other campaigns, but not so far in Romney's. Could it be that Axelrod and the others leaked a phony battle plan to Politico in order to goad Romney into exactly the mistakes he has so far avoided? Could it be that they plan a preliminary round of personal derision against Romney to bloody him, enrage him, push him off his own plan toward a battle that can only hurt him?
That's the way it looks to me. Be careful. Be calm. Be cool. And remember, this election isn't about feelings. It's about jobs. Every hour that a Republican challenger allows himself or herself to be diverted from that subject — even by the most justifiable outrage over the most improper attacks — is an hour wasted forever.