How Can Anyone Govern After This Campaign?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 18, 2012 · 9:20 AM EDT

Those of us who have been reporting on and discussing politics for the past few decades have come to expect rough-and-tumble campaigns. As Chicago writer Finley Peter Dunne once observed: “Politics ain’t beanbag.”

But the nature of the 2012 presidential campaign so far raises questions about how, or even whether, the eventual winner will be able to govern. The past two years could seem like a period of bipartisanship compared with the next two.

It’s only July, but the two presidential campaigns are already calling each other names. President Barack Obama’s campaign has suggested that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney is a liar and a criminal. The Romney campaign has responded that Obama runs “dishonest” campaigns, and Romney himself has said that the president of the United States owes him an apology.

The folks in the Romney campaign aren’t exactly a bunch of shrinking violets. They showed during the fight for the GOP nomination that they were ready to take down their adversaries — first former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and then former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) — with withering attacks and overwhelming force.

“Never use a fly swatter when a sledge hammer will do” seemed to be one of the campaign’s operating principles.

During the primaries and in the race against the president, the Romney team has placed a premium on swift responses to attacks, as well as to sharp assaults on their opponents.

That said, the nature of the attacks coming from the Obama re-election campaign seems quite different from the attacks coming from their opponent.

While Romney’s campaign blasts the president’s performance, agenda and decisions, Obama’s team has largely attacked Romney personally, trying to demonize him and discredit his experience.

Yes, Obama’s operatives and strategists have criticized contradictions in the Romney record and Romney’s current positions (on health care, for example), challenged his performance as governor of Massachusetts and charged him of supporting a tax cut for millionaires. Those are standard attacks. But to a large extent, the Obama campaign has simply been trying to destroy Romney personally.

It would not be unreasonable for Democrats to respond that they are doing nothing different from what Republicans did in 2004 to then-Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry. In that race, conservatives challenged the Massachusetts lawmaker’s war record and raised questions about his character.

And Obama supporters can rightfully point to the bizarre demands, too often unchallenged by reputable figures in the GOP, for proof that the president was born in the United States.

But even if Democrats insist that their attempt to discredit Romney is merely “payback” for 2004 or for the way some of the president’s critics have treated him during the past four years, the nature of the president’s re-election campaign is troubling given Obama’s rhetoric four years ago about changing the tone of politics and given the hope that so many people had that Obama would be a different kind of politician.

The sitting president of the United States, who started off as an inspirational symbol of something better, something different, is running a typical nasty attack campaign.

On one level, of course, it’s not unexpected. Given the state of the economy, Obama has decided to try to make the 2012 presidential election a referendum on Romney rather than on his own first term. If the president’s campaign discredits the GOP challenger, then Obama’s re-election is much more likely.

On another level, however, the strategy seems petty. And if you take a moment to think back to 2008, exactly what credentials did Obama have to be president, other than his rhetoric of hope and change and the fact that he was not from the incumbent party?

The one thing that is certain is that either Obama or Romney will be sworn in as president in January and will have to govern. But unless the nature of the campaigns changes dramatically between now and November — an unlikely development — the winner won’t have established much of a rationale for his term. Moreover, he will have contributed to the poisoned atmosphere in Washington, D.C., that will greet him.

Not surprisingly, the Romney message is that Obama has failed. Yes, the challenger’s campaign has an agenda, but it seems little more than the litany of worn-out buzzwords and slogans about taxes, spending and “big government” that we have heard for the past 25 years.

Trying to make the 2012 election a simple referendum about unemployment and economic growth certainly is Romney’s best strategy, but it doesn’t help him build support for an agenda if he wins.

Similarly, Obama’s effort to discredit Romney as a potential president is a good strategy, but it doesn’t position him to accomplish much during a second term. And if the president’s proposal on ending the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year is an indication, a second Obama term would be a regurgitation of proposals left over from the first term, hardly a hopeful sign given likely Republican control of the House next year.

Given both campaigns so far and the expected increase in both the volume and the meanness of attacks as Election Day approaches, November’s winner will be greeted by an opposition party disinclined to give the new president the benefit of the doubt on anything. This is particularly the case if Obama wins a second term, because Republicans in Congress will instantly be thinking about 2014 and Obama’s second midterm elections.

Of course, a re-elected Obama, unable to run again, could embrace the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan and truly try to bring the country together.

Or a victorious Romney could follow his best instincts and try to create a centrist Congressional majority to deal with both tax reform and the deficit. But after the kind of presidential campaign we are seeing, it’s more difficult to imagine Washington, D.C., as a place of greater civility and compromise.