The news says this is the worst, most meaningless, and meanest no-fun presidential campaign ever. Every couple days, the campaigns and the reporters covering them declare we have reached a new low, and yet, neither reporters nor the campaigns offer data to back this claim up. Not a single chart has been released plotting Mitt Romney's welfare ad some unit of meanness below the great lows of all time, like LBJ's "Daisy" ad, or LBJ's never-used KKK ad, or George H. W. Bush's Willie Horton ad, or even a Swift Boat ad. And yet the declinist, new low-icist argument is unending.
Take Politico's Reid J. Epstein's August 14 story, headlined, "Death of the high-minded campaign." (That was before the newest low!) Or Walter Shapiro's August 16 column at Yahoo titled "Worst. Campaign. Ever." On August 15, Sen. John McCain tweeted "I agree - it's the worst I've ever seen," and linked to The Washington Post's Dan Balz's column about "a most poisonous campaign."
Really, John McCain? Aren't you the John McCain who in the 2000 South Carolina primary was accused of fathering an illigitimate black child by the Bush campaign? Aren't you the John McCain whose 2008 running mate declared the opposition was "pallin' around with terrorists"? On Friday, The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg shows how we fell so far. We had such high hopes that Romney's pick of Paul Ryan as his running mate would lift us all up. But, per Rutenberg:
Then Tuesday (and Wednesday and Thursday) happened.
President Obama made a joking allusion to Mr. Romney’s putting Seamus, the family dog, on the roof of his car; Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of demeaning his office with a campaign of “division and anger and hate,” born of Chicago no less. And it was all sliding back down the banister.
A Seamus joke doesn't seem to sink to the level of using a man's adopted daughter to play on the racism of southerners, but perhaps we should defer to McCain -- he'd be the expert. For the non-experts out there, these new lows have accelerated and are now coming at a dizzying pace, so let's turn to The Atlantic Wire's patented Low Tracker to follow them.
- First Low: December 20, 2011: BarackObama.com posts this message: "The Romney campaign just suggested that Mitt will release his tax returns 'as soon as President Obama releases his grades and birth certificate...' It's truly a new low." It was referring to a joke by Mitt Romney's son Matt, which he retracted. No low is too low to raise money off of, however, and the campaign urged followers to give and "send the message that there's a cost to that kind of negativity."
- Lower: March 8: The Obama campaign's national Latino vote director, Adrian Saenz, wrote, "A new low for Mitt Romney." Romney had criticized Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
- Even Lower: April 17: Romney's campaign issued a press release quoting Romney on Obama's proposals to lower energy prices. "President Obama’s government by gimmick is reaching another new low today."
- Lower Still: May 8: Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland responds to Romney's remarks on the Detroit bailout. Romney's "comments today that he will ‘take a lot of credit that the [auto] industry has come back’ are a new low in dishonesty, even for him," Strickland said.
- Even Lower Than That: July 12: Supporters of Obama suggested that Romney gave a speech at the NAACP, hoping to get booed. (Attendees didn't like his vow to kill Obamacare.) Rush Limbaugh was outraged at the charge. "How much cynicism do you have to have to sit there and think Romney purposely went in there to get booed by the NAACP so as to benefit him with other voting blocs? I can't imagine anybody doing anything like that, not in American politics. It's a new low. I can't fathom it."
- Really Low: August 8: A New York Times editorial titled "Mr. Romney Hits Bottom on Welfare," the newspaper trashes Romney's ad accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform. (Bottom is the lowest a low can get, right? After that, we're talking basement...) "Mitt Romney’s campaign has hit new depths of truth-twisting with its accusation that President Obama plans to “gut welfare reform” by ending federal work requirements."
- Really Really Low: August 9: Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades emails supporters saying an ad by a pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, linking Romney to a woman's cancer death, is "A new low." Rhoades wrote, "This week, the Obama campaign hit a new low. Obama allies released a desperate and dishonest ad that tried to falsely link Mitt to a family tragedy." He closed the email by asking for a donation of $5 or more.
- Super Low: August 11: The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman also felt the welfare ad set a new record. "Lying is endemic to politics, but Mitt Romney may have pioneered a new low last week," he wrote.
- Extremely Low: August 14: Joe Biden says Republicans want to "unchain Wall Street" and "put y'all back in chains." Biden usually says "unshackled," but the chains thing sounded like a reference to slavery. Romney's campaign was shocked. The campaign said in a press release, "After weeks of slanderous and baseless accusations leveled against Governor Romney, the Obama Campaign has reached a new low. The comments made by the Vice President of the United States are not acceptable in our political discourse..." Romney seconded that in an Ohio speech, saying, "This is an old game in politics; what’s different this year is that the president is taking things to a new low."
- Jaw-Droppingly Low: August 15: "US election reaches new low as Mitt Romney tells Barack Obama to 'take hate home'" the Daily Telegraph said. Romney was responding to Biden's chains comment, saying, "Mr President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
- Current Lowest Low: August 17: President Obama hasn't held a press conference in eight weeks, but he gave interviews to Not Serious Reporters at Entertainment Tonight and People. “I hate the fact that they have made me worry more about access than reporting. Why build a press briefing room if the president isn’t going to brief the press?” NBC News' Chuck Todd told Politico's Dylan Byers. Todd said the White House's treatment of reporters has "reached a new low."
- Future Low: On Sunday, CBS's Face the Nation will ask panelists if the campaign has hit a new low.
If you graphed these new lows, it would be a fairly uninteresting downward slope, since each successive event is lower that the previous one ("new low"). But you might notice the record lows being set at a quickening pace. You could draw a couple conclusions from that: Maybe this campaign really is historically mean. But I would argue the facts do not support this case. Let's take one example: when Obama made a joke about Seamus, the dog Romney strapped to the roof of his car for a roadtrip. Here's the joke:
"During a speech a few months ago, Gov. Romney even explained his energy policy this way -- I'm quoting here -- 'You can't drive a car with a windmill on it.' … Now, I don’t know if he’s actually tried that. I know he’s had other things on his car."
Now, let's look at all the standard measurements used for determining whether a joke is mean. Is it "too soon"? No. Seamus had his roadtrip in 1983. Is the topic too sensitive? No, the joke is about a dog, not a natural disaster. Did the joke express joy in others' sorrow? No, Obama did not say he wished Seamus had died to really show up the dog's mean master. Is the joke "too on the nose"? No, Obama didn't even say the word "Seamus." Is the joke gross? No, Obama didn't even mention Romney's son's favorite part of the story, which is that Seamus got diarrhea.
Therefore, we must conclude that the campaign is not historically mean. Perhaps this year everyone's skin is just historically thin.