The past week demonstrates how Campaign 2012 has devolved into a series of calculated personal attacks, devoid of the substantive issues and policies that should be dominating the national political conversation.
The main exhibit: Mitt Romney spent most of the week dodging questions about his tax returns and defending his record at Bain Capital, specifically addressing a report that he was actually at the financial firm three years after he supposedly left. Romney still insists that he will not release more tax returns and, on Sunday, his campaign declared that its man had “retroactively retired” from Bain (whatever that means).
In his latest New York Times column, Paul Krugman defends the Obama campaign from charges that it is focusing more on Romney’s personal history than issues of substance. Krugman’s main point: Not only do these issues matter but, contrary to popular belief, they actually help bring policy issues out to the forefront.
Look, voters aren’t policy wonks who pore over Tax Policy Center analyses. And when a politician—say, Mr. Obama—cites actual numbers in a speech, well, there’s always a politician on the other side to contradict him. How are voters supposed to know who’s telling the truth? In fact, earlier this year focus groups given an accurate description of Mr. Romney’s policy proposals refused to believe that any politician would take such a position.
Perhaps in a better world we could count on the news media to sort through the conflicting claims. In this world, however, most voters get their news from short snippets on TV, which almost never contain substantive policy analysis. The print media do offer analysis pieces—but these pieces, out of a desire to seem “balanced,” all too often simply repeat the he-said-she-said of political speeches. Trust me: you will see very few news analyses saying that Mr. Romney proposes huge tax cuts for the rich, with no plausible offset other than big benefit cuts for everyone else—even though this is the simple truth. Instead, you will see pieces reporting that “Democrats say” that this is what Mr. Romney proposes, matched with dueling quotes from Republican sources.
So how can the Obama campaign cut through this political and media fog? By talking about Mr. Romney’s personal history, and the way that history resonates with the realities of his pro-rich, anti-middle-class policy proposals.