"So you don't think that's questioning their patriotism when you say that?"
-- An incredulous George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in an Oct. 18, 2004 interview asking President George W. Bush about his charge that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s plan to withdraw from Iraq was “surrender.”
After President Obama’s sour showing in last week’s debate, he and his team adopted a curious seeming response.
Team Obama said Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a man Democrats (and Republicans) have long been saying is a stiff, awkward, un-relatable bore, was a slick and artful politician.
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Obama’s senior political adviser, David Axelrod, even told CBS News on Sunday that Romney’s performance was “Gantry-esque.” That was a reference to Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis’ con artist evangelist whom Burt Lancaster played in spellbinding fashion in the movie version.
Gantry was a fraud -- a hard-drinking womanizer whose fire and brimstone sermons were just a means to con rubes out of their money. He was an undoubtedly evil character.
So Romney, previously jeered as a gaffe-prone, bumbling blueblood who couldn’t connect with voters, suddenly turned into an evil, mesmerizing, tent-revival hustler?
The basis for this abrupt u-turn is that Romney says that he is not calling for a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy financed by tax increases for middle-class. Obama claims Romney’s tax plan would do that based on a study conducted by left-leaning think tanks that took Romney’s overall goal – to lower tax rates across the board but maintain current federal revenues by closing tax loopholes – and plugged in their own hypothetical policy points.
The think tanks said that to achieve his goals, Romney would have to jack up taxes on middle class families. Romney says not so. He says that the revenues lost from the lower rates will be made up for by the increased growth that will result from a fairer, flatter tax code and lower rates for small businesses.
That, says Team Obama, is a lie.
In their telling, Romney is not misguided or making the wrong assumptions, he is willfully misleading voters. For Obama’s claim to be true, Romney would have to know that he planned to raise taxes on middle-class families but was lying about it. A lie necessarily involves the intent to deceive.
Once upon a time, calling your opponent a liar was serious business. Sen. Bob Dole’s charge in 1988 that Vice President George H.W. Bush was “lying about [Dole’s] record” over an ad on tax policy was considered a shocking accusation. Remember that it wasn’t too long ago that politicians fought duels over such things.
So for an incumbent president to call his opponent a liar ought to be a pretty big deal. But one might have thought that for an incumbent president to say that his challenger was a “vampire” corporate raider would have been a big deal too.
Democrats howled in 2004 because President George W. Bush and his team accused them of waving “the white flag of surrender” in Iraq. After a weak first-debate performance, journalists wanted to know if Bush was questioning his opponent’s patriotism despite Democrat John Kerry’s much-vaunted military service. Bush’s attacks were cast as an unseemly, desperate character attack on a war hero late in a campaign.
Now, an incumbent president is saying that his challenger wants to drop a crushing tax increase on cash-strapped families and is lying about it to get their votes so he can enact the plan. Team Obama says Romney wants to take the money from middle-income earners to give it to the rich and that Romney’s denials are a lie, and that’s all based on the conjecture of a think tank.
The president has embraced what he calls New Economic Patriotism that is based on his call for higher taxes on top earners to partly finance new federal spending. So isn’t the president questioning Romney’s patriotism along with his integrity?
This mirrors Obama’s claim during his Harry Truman phase last year in which he sought to cast himself as doing battle against a do-nothing Congress. Team Obama did not say that House Republicans held different views than the president and were at loggerheads, but explicitly said that Republicans were intentionally harming the nation’s economy in order to harm Obama’s re-election. Rather than the shock that greeted Bush’s claim that Democrats wanted to surrender in Iraq, the charge of economic sabotage was simply restated as part of an ordinary political debate.
Accusing your opponents of hurting the nation on purpose to win an election should have been more than a little astonishing, but the charge itself got very little attention. It got a ho-hum response in the establishment press, which has often substituted the “fact check” for actual context.
Think back to when the political action committee endorsed by Obama said that Romney was complicit in the death of a Kansas City woman. That’s a stupefying charge. But where the stories ended up was to say that while that ad was not true, Romney’s concurrent attack on Obama’s changes to welfare requirements wasn’t true either.
One was a toxic personal attack by Team Obama. The other was a tendentious interpretation of the president’s policy. The answer that arose from the political press: Same difference.
No incumbent has ever run a campaign of such sustained character attacks as Obama. The president has been spending tens of millions each month not to say that Romney is wrong or that he holds the wrong policy assumptions but that Romney is a bad man, unfit to be the chief magistrate of the land -- a vampire, a tax cheat and, now, a liar.
It should not be surprising then that Obama would respond to his debate shellacking with more of the same.
What should concern Democrats is that Obama is going too far overboard. Especially with Vice President Joe Biden, not famed for his rhetorical restraint, getting ready to debate Rep. Paul Ryan, the attack-based re-election campaign may be about to lose its credibility.
Once, a president calling his opponent a liar would have shaken the political world to its core. Now, it’s just received as ho-hum political posturing. While that should be cause for concern about the condition of the national discourse, it should be of more immediate concern for Obama that he has lost the power of throwing a presidential thunderbolt.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.