TOPICS > Politics

In War of Words, Presidential Campaign Charges Include ‘Hatred’ and ‘Unhinged’

August 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The campaign rhetoric being used by the presidential candidates is charged, tough, and no holds barred. Gwen Ifill talks to political strategist Mo Elleithee and Rick Tyler about why campaigns think negative campaign ads work, especially with the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour news cycle.

GWEN IFILL: Tough new rhetoric dominated the presidential campaign during the last 24 hours. It was the latest evidence that the battle for the White House will be no-holds-barred.

The pre-convention presidential campaign has become increasingly defined by acrimony and accusation.

GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R): This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They are just throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks.

GWEN IFILL: A new war of words was launched Tuesday, as Vice President Biden went after Republican Mitt Romney in Danville, Virginia.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Romney wants to let the — he said in the first 100 days he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put you all back in chains.

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GWEN IFILL: Republicans expressed immediate outrage. Later in the day, the vice president said he’d meant to say unshackled, but he didn’t apologize.

JOSEPH BIDEN: I got a message for them. If you want to know what’s outrageous, it’s their policies and the effects of their policies on middle-class Americans.


JOSEPH BIDEN: That’s what’s outrageous.

GWEN IFILL: By the time he arrived in Chillicothe, Ohio, last night, Romney had a new speech ready, angrily rejecting the vice president’s response. He called them:

MITT ROMNEY: Wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency. Another outrageous charge just came a few hours ago in Virginia, and the White House sinks a little bit lower. Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.


GWEN IFILL: Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, responding overnight, said Romney’s comments “seemed unhinged and particularly strange coming at a time when he’s pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false.”

Back and forth it went, with Romney on “CBS This Morning” saying it’s the Obama campaign that’s acting unhinged.

MITT ROMNEY: The comments of the vice president, as I heard them, I thought were one more example of a divisive effort to — to keep from talking about the real issues.

I think the American people had the same reaction, which is they listened to the vice president and they thought again a — an unfounded charge and a metaphor which is not uplifting, not uniting, but one which is once again a divisive attack.

GWEN IFILL: The fight quickly escalated from the stump to the air. A new Romney campaign commercial charged the president with raiding the Medicare trust fund.

NARRATOR: You pay into Medicare for years, every paycheck. Now, when you need it, Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare.

GWEN IFILL: A charge the president said today is simply dishonest.

BARACK OBAMA: Here’s what you need to know. I have strengthened Medicare. I have made reforms that have saved millions of seniors with Medicare hundreds of dollars on their prescription drugs.


BARACK OBAMA: I have proposed reforms that will save Medicare money by getting rid of wasteful spending in the health care system, reforms that will not touch your Medicare benefits, not by a dime.

GWEN IFILL: The Obama campaign’s Web response said Romney and Ryan would end Medicare as we know it.

This is far from the first time campaign rhetoric has run hot in a national campaign. In 1988, Bob Dole accused fellow Republican George H.W. Bush of twisting his words.

BOB DOLE (R): Stop lying about my record.

GWEN IFILL: But today’s broadsides between the Romney and Obama camps are landing especially early, with nearly three months still left before Election Day.

So, has the campaign really gotten meaner? And will the tough talk affect how voters decide in November?

We turn to two experienced political strategists, Mo Elleithee, who worked for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, and Rick Tyler, who worked on Republican Newt Gingrich’s campaign this year.

So, Rick Tyler, is it my imagination or has this gotten worse than usual, or as Dan Balz in The Washington Post wrote today, the guardrails have disappeared?

RICK TYLER, former Newt Gingrich aide: I think we have hit bottom.

This is not new in politics. Campaigns have been nasty before. Lyndon Johnson ran the famous daisy ad. I think that was about as low as you could get. That’s where he accused Barry Goldwater that he wanted to blow us all up.

GWEN IFILL: It ran one time, though.

RICK TYLER: It ran one time, but the media picked it up. And then people did see it.

I think, typically, the incumbent runs for the office and the challenger runs against the incumbent. I think the president has decided that he can’t run against his record. He’s clearly running against Mitt Romney.

But having said that, I think Romney’s a loser in this, because he is totally off-message. You just saw that interview with CBS News. He’s not talking about his plan for jobs, increased jobs, saving health care, reform that. He’s talking about what a nasty, mean campaign the president has.

And that doesn’t serve his purposes.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s get back to that in a moment.

But I’m curious about what Mo Elleithee thinks about whether this is the nastiest campaign you have ever seen.

MO ELLEITHEE, Democratic strategist: I mean, every campaign seems to be the nastiest campaign we have ever seen.



MO ELLEITHEE: And I agree with Rick. This goes back even much earlier than Lyndon Johnson.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were calling each other crooks and liars and hypocrites and atheists. And Grover Cleveland’s opponents attacked him for having children out of wedlock. So, this goes back from since the beginning of the republic.

What I think is different about this time is, it’s all happening in real time. The media landscape has changed enough that we’re no longer in a daily news cycle. We are in a minute-by-minute news cycle. Campaigns are being waged on Twitter in 140 characters or less.

And so — and it’s really difficult to have a thoughtful discussion on issues in 140 characters or less. And I think that’s in part a challenge for the campaigns. It’s also in part a challenge for the media that cover the campaigns, as they get sucked into this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, but what is driving this particular spate, this last 48 hours maybe? Is it the selection of the vice presidential candidates, who are supposed to be attack dogs? Is that what has sped everything up?

RICK TYLER: I think it’s interesting because it — as you notice, the president and the vice president have both been fairly generous in their characterization of Paul Ryan as — in character.

So that probably isn’t it. Romney has accused them of being hateful and hatred. Maybe he has some polling that suggests that people are beginning to think that. I’m not sure. I think it’s driven by a couple things.

One is most strategists — no offense to my friends here, but most strategists in this town think that negative campaigning works, so they talk about negative campaigning.

Two, if — lacking an overarching, broad vision, if you have an idea or a broad vision that people generally like, people will generally say, yes, I know that’s true about what you say about my opponent, or about this particular campaign, but I want that, whatever that is.

And that just seems to be lacking. In this sense, Obama and Romney seem to be sort of rhetorical twins here. The reason exactly that Mo is right is because we are fighting this on minute-to-minute, hour-by-hour, because there is a lacking overvision, so tactics are winning the day. It’s win or lose every single day.

GWEN IFILL: Every day.

So, is he right, though? Does it work? Are you one of those strategists who thinks it does work? And if it doesn’t or if it does, are you running the risk of alienating voters?

MO ELLEITHEE: Yes, I guess it’s sort of all in the definition of what a negative campaign is, right?

I mean, I actually am one of those people that believe talking about your record and talking about your opponent’s record is — it works, it’s necessary, and it’s actually good for the process.

GWEN IFILL: Liar, unhinged?

MO ELLEITHEE: But when it gets past the difference in vision, when it gets past the difference in policy and it starts get into personal character assassination, that’s when I think the rails do come off and you do run the risk of hurting your own candidate and — and alienating voters.

GWEN IFILL: What was Vice President Biden doing last night with that unchained comment? What was the point of that or was that — he was clearly off-script at that point.

MO ELLEITHEE: Yes, well, I think what he was trying to do — and it may have been a poor word choice — I think he what was trying to do was make a play off of the Republicans who have been arguing that they need to unshackle Wall Street.

Instead of using the work unshackle, he said unchain. That’s what the Obama campaign is saying in response. And that is a plausible explanation. I think it was probably a poor word choice.

What happened in the immediate aftermath, I think, is where things got a little out of control, when both campaigns started hurling negativity at one another.

Now, look, I believe that both sides, that both parties, not just both campaigns — both parties — are responsible for the tone. And both parties need to take responsibility for the tone. I am partisan. I do believe one side has been worse than the other.

President Obama has been under relentless attack since the beginning of 2011, when the campaign — when the Republican primary campaign began. The Republican primary campaign — I think Rick would attest to this from his particular vantage point at the time — was particularly brutal as the Republicans turned fire on one another.

But I would urge and I think most Americans would urge, move past the personal stuff and keep it focused on your records and on your visions.

GWEN IFILL: Well, what — go ahead.

RICK TYLER: Well, Mo is right about that. He’s right, because it is important that we, as campaign professionals, articulate things that are our opponent voted for, because voters do actually find that helpful.

So, for instance, we know that Obama cut $700 billion from Medicare. That’s point of fact in law. Now, to his defense, he’s saying, well, that’s part of the Affordable Health Care Act, and I’m going to use that and seniors will be better off. That’s his argument. I don’t agree with that. That’s his argument.

But look at what they say about Paul Ryan. He cuts exactly the same amount from Medicare, which is over $700 billion, but he wants to use it for premium support.

So basically you have a fundamental difference of an idea. One is the president would like to spend it on more or less a government-centric program, and Ryan would like to use it more or less on a private sector program to promote competition to drive down costs.

And that’s what we should be talking about is those two fundamental differences in ideas. Instead, we’re hurling invectives at each other. Take this one ad that the president — it wasn’t — to be fair, it wasn’t an Obama ad, but somehow Romney was responsible for a woman getting cancer and dying?

GWEN IFILL: A Democratic super PAC from last week.

RICK TYLER: I mean, that’s just absurd, and I don’t think people believe that. And I think it will backfire.

GWEN IFILL: And the Republican National Committee chairman was saying that the president had blood on his hands when it came to Medicare.

MO ELLEITHEE: It’s that kind of invective that I think is part of the problem.

But Rick brings up a good point, which are super PACs and other third-party groups. Right?

Some of the worst offenders are actually not super PACs. They are these 501(c)(4) organizations where there really is no accountability because all the donors are completely secret.

And there’s no accountability. So when the media tries to call them out for being untrue, for example, some of these groups that are out there now attacking the president for the $700 billion in cuts, without recognizing the fact that the Ryan — that the Republican plan is the same exact thing — the media calls them out on it, but because of the sheer amount of money that is now in the system, I think a lot of the people running these outside groups with no accountability feel like they can just drown out those fact-checkers.

GWEN IFILL: And if it turns out in the end that it drives the polls one way or the other, someone will declare that these things work, and we will spend the rest of this campaign on the ledge, waiting to see what happens next.

Rick Tyler, Mo Elleithee, thank you both very much.

RICK TYLER: Appreciate it.

MO ELLEITHEE: Thank you.