“This is a campaign not about character assassination, even though that's what I think has come from the Obama camp by and large.”
-- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in an interview with CBS News.
President Obama has admitted that he has gone “overboard” in his attacks on Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and to “mistakes that are made.” (Note the telling use of the passive voice and the present tense.)
But fortunately for the president, he seems untroubled by such distortions. In his interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes,” Obama in the same breath excused his own excesses, saying, “You know, that happens in politics."
“60 Minutes” didn’t air that part of the interview on Sunday, but released it after the fact. It may have been the most revealing part of the conversation. Obama believes that politics excuses a considerable degree of nastiness and stretching of the truth. Certainly his campaign, the most negative re-election effort in memory, reflects that.
Obama also knows that a sympathetic establishment press will portray him simply a tough competitor and his political base will cheer him on as he swings his ax at Romney.
Romney has responded to the attacks by trying to set the record straight and knock down the considerable number of “mistakes that are made” in Obama’s assault. Romney’s campaign has issued a flurry of “fact check” claims, brandishing Pinocchio’s nose like a dagger.
This approach assumes that Obama might be shamed into to reeling in his attacks on Romney’s character, career and policies -- that the president would be shamed into running a more substantive, issue-oriented campaign. But as Obama told Kroft, the president is at peace with himself and unlikely to start experiencing pangs of remorse for having said misleading things about Romney.
Worse, spending so much time setting the record straight is all reactive and defensive, often reinforcing the original charge.
Consider Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the human improvised explosive device of the 2012 news cycle. Reid blithely asserted that in some years Romney paid no taxes, unsupported by fact and based on an anonymous source. He repeated the charge over and over again. Romney called Reid out and the Republican’s supporters repeatedly tried to shame Reid into retracting the charge. But in the process, they lavished attention on Reid’s claim causing headlines about whether quarter-billionaire Romney had ever skated on his taxes.
What did Reid, who is five years away from facing Nevada voters again, learn? That stuff works.
He did exactly the same thing this week when he bashed Romney for the way in which he practices their shared Mormon faith. It was a shocking attack and truly beyond the pale of political decency, in other words, perfect bait. While Romney wisely avoided the charge, many of his supporters went hog wild with denunciations of Reid. The takeaway for casual observers is a reminder that Romney is a member of that much-maligned, much-mocked religion.
Reid 2, Republicans 0.
Romney understands this on some level since his blunt rationale for not dumping decades of his tax returns was that doing so would give Obama more ammunition with which to attack him. Democrats may have howled, but the Romney tax returns story has not become nearly what Team Obama hoped it would be.
The former Massachusetts governor’s understanding that there is no referee in this game, replacement or otherwise, seems to be deepening. Romney told CBS News on Tuesday that Obama was engaged in a campaign of mostly “character assassination.”
But what is Romney to do about it?
In a speech in the wealthy enclave of Westerville, Ohio, a leafy suburb of Ohio, Romney felt compelled to explain to his well-heeled audience that they weren’t getting much of a tax cut under his plan.
"By the way, don't be expecting a huge cut in taxes, because I'm also going to lower deductions and exemptions," Romney said.
This is no doubt part of a reflexive answer to Obama’s claim that Romney wants to pay for a tax cut for the rich while raising taxes on the middle class. Obama’s well-debunked claims are based on a think-tank study that imagined what Romney might do to make his tax plan fit in with his other promise to decrease deficit spending.
Rather than answering Obama’s charges, Romney’s tax talk cut into one of his very best selling points: an across-the-board cut in tax rates and a simplification of the bramble that is the U.S. tax code. He needn’t answer Obama’s charge, he need only make his own.
How about this: “I want to lower your tax rate and simplify the tax code. The president wants to raise taxes.”
If he means to change the trajectory of the race, Romney must stay on his message about cutting government and encouraging the private sector, whatever the question and whatever the charges from Obama and the press. Even if he is going “overboard” and even if “mistakes are being made.”
If Romney abandons his reflexive over-sharing and sticks to talking points that combine simple promises with clear-eyed attacks on Obama, reporters and many on left and the right will bemoan Romney’s “lack of specifics” and “heavily scripted” campaign appearances.
You know who else they’ve said that about? Every successful Republican presidential candidate of the modern era.
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.