Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Should Romney Attack Obama's Character? Part I

There exists a perception among many Republicans that in 2008, despite winning the Democratic primary and the presidential election, Barack Obama somehow managed to avoid being vetted. The idea goes that Obama was treated with unusual tenderness by the media, and that John McCain ran an ineffectual campaign, so that the vetting which would ordinarily occur did not occur. Shortly before his death in early 2012, Internet media tycoon Andrew Breitbart spoke to this concept when he declared, "This election, we're going to vet him." What does this mean? Should Mitt Romney make personal attacks against Obama, or would this be ineffective, since voters have already elected Obama?

There is some truth to the idea that Obama was not given as thorough a vetting as one would normally expect of a presidential candidate. There are a number of different reasons why this occurred. First, Obama was very new to the national stage. In 2004, he won a U.S. Senate race in Illinois by default when his Republican opponent was forced to drop out of the race due to a scandal. Obama took office in January 2005 and declared his run for the presidency barely more than two years later. Normally, a serious presidential candidate is in the public spotlight for some time before he can run for president, but Obama was not.

For much of the Democratic primary, all assumed Hillary Clinton would be the party's nominee--as did Hillary herself. Obama was viewed as the obvious choice for vice president. Hillary also knew that if she won the nomination, she would be placed under enormous pressure to choose Obama for VP. Her inevitability, combined with the fact that she planned to have Obama on her ticket, meant that she had very little incentive to attack Obama during the primary. And Obama didn't do much to attack Hillary. It seemed as though he were running for VP. It wasn't until late 2007, shortly before the Iowa Caucus, that Obama caught fire in the polls. As it turned out, he made a serious run for the presidency, and he won Iowa.

In early 2008, as Hillary finally realized the danger she was in, her campaign began to float attacks against Obama. In most cases, these attacks quickly backfired. Often, a campaign will avoid this kind of blowback, because the media will vet the candidates independently. Hillary publicly complained that the media was too soft on Obama. The left-leaning media did show affection for him, but they weren't alone: Much of the right-wing media also viewed Obama as the lesser of two evils, compared to Hillary.

Finally, the Reverend Wright scandal broke, and Obama's campaign did a poor job handling it. But by then it was too late: The delegate math made it virtually impossible for Obama to lose. Continuing to dig into Obama's past would have been self-destructive for the Democratic Party--and for the left-leaning media.

There is also some truth to the idea that McCain's campaign did not fully vet Obama. Generally speaking, McCain's campaign was lackluster. Famously, it failed to vet its own VP nominee, Sarah Palin. But McCain also made the decision to declare most personal attacks against Obama off-limits. The Reverend Wright scandal had done more harm to Obama than anything else during the Democratic primary. But McCain announced that he would fire any member of his campaign who mentioned Reverend Wright or even spoke Obama's middle name (Hussein).

Since the media and McCain's campaign both declined to take a "no-holds barred" approach, attacks on Obama's history and character were left to the right-leaning media, particularly the Internet. But just as Americans began to pay attention to the race, the media oxygen was consumed by the emergence of Sarah Palin (who was vetted by the media) and the economic crisis.

Thus, Obama manged to be elected president without most voters becoming too familiar with his background. After Obama became president, the Internet became the vehicle by which rumors--true and false--circulated about him. The nature of the Internet and Obama's far-right detractors made a credible post-campaign vetting impossible. Questions about Obama's birth, school records, illegal drug use, associations with extremists and socialists, etc. lingered.

Voters may not have known much about Obama's past, but the fact remained that Obama was President of the United States. Obama's near omnipresence in the media (especially toward the beginning of his term) did not give one the impression that he was secretive--far from it. There may be plenty of unused mud to sling at Obama that would normally have been used in 2008, but is there any point in using it in 2012? We will discuss that question in Part II.