The State of Play
As I write this:
- Team Romney is hitting Obama hard over Bain Capital attacks using Cory Booker (NJ mayor) as the primary weapon (he called Team Obama's attacks on private equity nauseating).
- Ending Spending Super PAC (Ricketts) backed off on a plan to hit Obama with Reverend Wright. PowerLine has a 3-Part series of posts suggesting the topic is fair game!
- There's the bullying thing for Romney and the Dog-vs-Dog allegations.
- And what about Romney's Mormon religion? What about Obama's dad's philandering? And so on?
- Right now the race is neck-and-neck with a faint pro-Romney trend.
So what's fair.
The Easy Answer: Whatever Works
The easy answer you could give is "whatever works." This is politics after all: no one expects a clean fight. The leaders of the world get to ignore the rules and pay the cost when it suits them. Why not just let them fight it out. If some line of attack hurts more than it helps? Hey, you pay the price!
The problem with this is that there is such a thing as dirty campaigning and with Super PACs, underground polling agencies, and a host of actors and surrogates, the all out dirty war is not something we ought to want to encourage. There has to at least be some justification for whatever is being said with millions of dollars behind it or else the question comes: can my surrogate get away with libel (answer: probably) because, hey: it works.
There may be some relevance to Romney's early behavior ... and the dog thing is just stupid--but, for example, the fliers that suggest John McCain had a black baby out of wedlock? We rightfully ought to punish campaigns that go there--at the very least, find them illegitimate.
The Better Answer: Rules of Engagement
The reason just about everyone agrees it's a bad idea to kill enemy soldiers who surrender is because you don't want your own guys killed (unless you are, you know, Sparta). The campaigns have more or less agreed to leave the kids and to the extent they can families out of the fray. McCain ran a specifically principled campaign and didn't like, for example, people emphasizing Obama's middle name just to do so--or screaming that he was a terrorist.
In a sense, it's too bad McCain lost--as many people link his defeat to sense of decorum--but Romney, too, has so far made a point of shying away from Brietbart-esque attacks on Obama and we've yet to see Wright with a multi-million dollar ad-buy behind him. I suspect that there is a level of personal pride behind the individual campaign's strategies: a wish to be able to look oneself in the mirror in the morning.
I suspect, however, that the stated, very, very few Rules of Engagement have more to do with mutually assured destruction and risk-factor than personal standards.
In any event, stated RoEs will only get you so far: Super PACs won't play by them.
The Best Answer: There Are Some Places You Should Not Go
Romney did repudiate the Rev. Wright ad--and Karl Rove agreed with him--this was couched as the attack being 'stupid' (and played out). Axelrod said that Team Obama would not bring up Romney's religion (in the same breath calling for a more forceful denunciation of the Rev. Wright strategy). This is more or less the right noise even if it feels awfully calculated (does Rove think it would be okay to go after Wright if it were not played out or likely to backfire?).
Ideally both candidates should be men of honor who do not want the worst sort of mud slung in their names. If we can't get that then, at least, the populace ought to disavow candidates on whose watch the worst sort of attacks are allowed to go on.
Unfortunately, reasonable people are going to disagree about where that is--and there's no good objective line (well, there's mine: if you disagree with where I draw it, clearly you are arguing in bad faith!).
So it's unworkable.
What Do I Think?
The conventional wisdom holds that America-at-large tunes in strongly after the conventions in August. Before then, even with saturation level ad blitzes, people just don't care, fast-forward, or tune out. I think that's somewhat true: I bet there are plenty of Americans out there who couldn't pick Romney out of a line up.
As such, it's hard to know what works and what doesn't--it's hard to factor in backlash--and separate negative reactions to a candidate from the actions of their surrogates. Did Romney's favorables tank after he went nuclear-negative on Gingrich in Florida? Or was it just that people who didn't know him didn't like what they saw absent that? How can you tell for sure?
I think the real danger of all of these negative attacks is that there is some secret formula as to what can actually hurt a candidate--and the action can come from either the candidate themselves or a rival.
I suspect that Gingrich was frighteningly susceptible to negative attacks compared to the other candidates on that stage. I think Santorum worked hard to make himself susceptible (if he'd kept his moth shut about social issues he would've done, I think, much better). Obama is likable--we are told--which is a good defense: but the economy is probably a net-net winning issue against him.
Every minute Romney spends talking about social issues is one lost to hit on the economy. Bain is a Romney weak-spot: if you believe that he will create jobs for the 1% at the expense of the 99% (to pick two numbers at random) he certainly looks the part. But attack Bain is, kind of, attacking capitalism and Democrats are weak there. The same way that attack Wright is not exactly racist--but Republicans have an innate vulnerability there and they ought to be mindful of it.
Both those attacks are risky for their users.
Ultimately the best antidote to a massive bloodletting is a close race: so long as the race is close both sides will, I think--at least for now, be careful of what they unleash. Romney thinks, probably correctly, he can grind down Obama on the economy and wait for Greece to blow up in six weeks. Obama knows that he can keep on trying with women's health issues and, if he can keep the air in his balloon he'll float over the finish line so long as Romney doesn't shoot too many holes in it.
Both of these preclude going full Pals-Around-With-Terrorist or Look-He's-A-Mormon!
Hopefully the Super PACs which, as we know, absolutely, positively do not coordinate with the candidness will, somehow, get the message.