Robert Schlesinger is managing editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report, overseeing all opinion editorial content. He is the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rschles.
There's a scene in Rob Reiner's classic 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap where Nigel Tufnel, the titular fictional band's slow-witted lead guitarist, played by Christopher Guest, explains to documentarian Marty DiBergi (Reiner) why the knobs on his amp go to 11 instead of the standard 10. "You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at 10. You're on 10 here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on 10 on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?" Eleven, of course.
I've thought of that scene while surveying the state of the presidential election recently. During the three weeks from July 2 through July 29 (the most recent period for which there are data), the two presidential campaigns and their allies spent $71.1 million on television advertising, according to the Washington Post's ad tracker. During that period, nearly all of the ads were negative—and it's having an effect. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed the negative ratings inching up for both President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, prompting one of the pollsters, Republican Bill McInturff, to tell NBC that "this is not characteristic … for July" but rather "these are numbers you usually see in October." The campaign has already reached an October (month 10 on your calendar, by the way) pitch, so where can we go from here?
To answer that question, we must understand where we are and why.
First consider the Obama team, which spent July mercilessly hammering Romney on Bain and taxes. "Makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all," one brutal ad said (a theme since amplified by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's implausible and irresponsible claims to having inside information regarding the Romney returns). Why the monomaniacal focus on Romney? Because he's the variable in the 2012 political equation. We've lived with Barack Obama for more than four years—people know him. A recent Pew poll showed 90 percent of voters already feel that they have enough information about Obama to make a decision on whether to vote for him.
The parallels between the 2012 and 2004 elections have been somewhat overdrawn, but on this they are worth noting. "It's very much like '04," Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer recently told The New Republic's Alec MacGillis. "The Bush people did not plan, at least if you believe [George W. Bush strategist] Alex Castellanos, Alex says 'we did not plan to run a super negative campaign. But we found out after a couple of months that we could not move President Bush's numbers, but we could move [John] Kerry's.' " When you can't affect one side of the equation, you focus your effort on the other. That's especially true if Romney has done little to introduce himself to the voters.
What he has done is air his own series of unremittingly negative attacks, which have been remarkable for their startling level of shameless falsity. This is, again, October-level stuff, the kind of duplicity one expects in the final stretch of a campaign as desperation creeps in.
The Romney campaign released a new ad this week accusing the Obama administration of trying to "gut" President Clinton's signature 1996 welfare reform law by "dropping work requirements." The charge keys off a notice the Department of Health and Human Services sent out last month. The department announced that Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is willing to provide waivers on the welfare law in order to find "new, more effective ways to meet the goals of [the law], particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment," according to the Department. GOP governors—specifically Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Gary Herbert of Utah—asked Sebelius to consider granting the waivers. And when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney himself asked for a similar waiver. Giving Republican governors flexibility to try to find ways to improve the law is not anything close to gutting it. The Romney ad is grotesquely, pants-on-fire, Pinocchio's nose just punched a hole in the wall misleading.
Or consider the recent "you didn't build that" attacks. Speaking to a campaign rally in mid-July, Obama made the observation that collective effort through government action—things like public education and bridges and roads—sets the stage for individual entrepreneurs to thrive. "When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together," he said. But Republicans have taken one verbal stumble ("If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.") wildly out of context to suggest Obama was saying that small business owners didn't create their own businesses.
More recently, the GOP has been replaying Obama saying that "we tried our plan—and it worked," suggesting that he was talking about his economic policies. But he was talking about the Democrats' approach to tax rates, pointing out that the economy thrived under the higher tax regime of Bill Clinton while the Bush tax cuts brought tepid growth.
Then there's the talking point about "President Obama's massive defense cuts." Said cuts come from looming sequestration triggered by the unsurprising failure of the "super committee" to produce a deficit reduction deal. While it's true that Obama signed the law creating the super committee and sequestration, he could do so only after bipartisan majorities in both chambers voted for it. "I would feel bound by it," House Speaker John Boehner said in November. "It was part of the agreement." Now we have Boehner unbound. And while Romney can rightly say he opposed the deal from the start, he prefers to simply ignore the history, take the cuts out of context, and paint them as part of a nefarious Obama scheme to strip America of its defenses.
None of this should be surprising. The first commercial Romney ran in this campaign, back in November, featured a clip of Obama saying that "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose"—replaying a moment from the 2008 campaign in which Obama was quoting an aide to John McCain. ("What's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander," Romney said in defending the spot.)
If flat-out lies are the pre-convention norm—10, if you will—where do we go from here? Romney "believes it's time to vet the president," one adviser told Buzzfeed in mid-July. "He really hasn't been vetted. McCain didn't do it." Romney will. So excepting a brief, gauzy "meet Mitt" interlude during the Republican convention, expect a campaign that includes everything including the kitchen sink: drugs, socialism … can Jeremiah Wright be far behind? And while they may not reach the Romneyesque levels of serial whole-cloth fabrication you can be sure that Team Obama will reply in kind.
This campaign, in other words, is going to 11.