DANA MILBANK: An ugly presidential campaign – but ugliest?

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – The umbrage industry was working overtime last week. Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ presidential standard-bearer, is so outraged by President Obama’s attacks that he called the president a hater: “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”
On Wednesday afternoon, John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, re-tweeted an article by The Washington Post’s Dan Balz titled, “A most poisonous campaign.” McCain added his opinion: “I agree – it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
That’s the same conclusion that conservative commentator Brit Hume drew for his Fox News Channel viewers on Tuesday night. “This is about as ugly as I’ve seen it get,” he said.
Forgive me, but I’m not prepared to join this walk down Great Umbrage Street just yet. Yes, it’s ugly out there. But is this worse than four years ago, when Obama was accused by the GOP vice presidential nominee of “palling around with terrorists”? Or eight years ago, when Democratic nominee John Kerry was accused of falsifying his Vietnam War record?
What’s different this time is that the Democrats are employing the same harsh tactics that have been used against them for so long, with so much success.
Balz is correct when he observes that the “most striking” element of the campaign is “the sense that all restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back.” In large part, this is because the Democrats are no longer simply whining about the other side being reckless and unfair: They are being reckless and unfair themselves.
The starkest example of this was an ad by Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, that implied that Romney was to blame for a woman’s death because her husband lost his job and health insurance when Bain Capital took over his steel mill.
It’s true that Romney is in a weak position to be complaining that the other side has been mean and nasty. He won the nomination by eviscerating his rivals with negative ads and accusations, and an ad his team aired last week that falsely claimed Obama was gutting welfare-to-work requirements injected racial politics into the campaign.
Obama and Vice President Biden dialed back their rhetoric on Wednesday, a day after Biden enraged the other side by telling a racially mixed audience in Virginia that Romney, by unshackling Wall Street, would “put y’all back in chains.”
But this doesn’t mean the Democrats are retiring their newly acquired incendiary devices. Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the campaign had “no problem” with Biden’s chains claim and said Obama “probably agrees with Joe Biden’s sentiments.” She derided the Romney side’s “faux outrage” and called the Republicans “hypocritical.”
Eight years ago, Cutter was a staffer on the Kerry campaign when the candidate was undone by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on his war record. Cutter, like other Democrats, learned a hard truth back then: Umbrage doesn’t win elections. Ruthlessness does.
Dana Milbank writes for The Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.