As political adages go, “the best defense is a good offense” never made much sense to begin with, and taken literally, would be hard to carry out. Avoid talking about your record by talking about other guys? Fend off damaging stories by planting damaging ones? Toilet paper his campaign office?
But the Obama campaign has been elevating the dictum to an art form, although they are tweaking it a bit. In the Obama telling, a good offense is taking offense.
We saw this when the New York Times broke the story of a conservative SuperPac funded by Chicago billionaire Joe Ricketts planning to tie Mr. Obama to his fiery former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In the days that followed, it wasn’t Mr. Obama who had to answer questions about his ties to Mr. Wright; it was Mr. Romney who had to answer questions about his ties to Mr. Ricketts.
“This morning’s story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and SuperPacs apparently are willing to go to tear down the President and elect Mitt Romney,” campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement that morning. “The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.”
The onslaught, online and on cable, lasted all day, forcing Mr. Romney, and eventually. Mr. Rickets himself, to walk away from the plan.
Today, the political world has been treated to the spectacle of Donald Trump, who is headlining a Romney fundraiser this evening, loudly questioning whether or not Mr. Obama was born in the United States after all.
While it seems that the needle on this question is essentially unmoveable, the Obama campaign has again turned an attack on them by someone who counts himself as a friend of Mr. Romney’s into an attack on the Massachusetts governor.
“Mitt Romney’s continued embrace of Donald Trump and refusal to condemn his disgraceful conspiracy theories demonstrates his complete lack of moral leadership,” said deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter in a statement. “Now he’s even standing by silently as Trump assails John McCain’s courage in standing up to the most extreme and hateful voices in the Republican Party—all in order to raise money for himself. If Mitt Romney lacks the backbone to stand up to a charlatan like Donald Trump because he’s so concerned about lining his campaign’s pockets, what does that say about the kind of President he would be?”
The Obama campaign is able to bend these pointed spears back at the holder for a number of reasons. For one, the president remains personally popular (more popular than his policies.) He ran on changing the culture of Washington, and has mostly left his own barbs for others to deliver, leaving him above the fray. And then there is of course the complicated question of Mr. Obama’s race, leading any attack against to be construed as going right up to the line of bigotry. It is difficult, for example to imagine any other candidate not being forced to answer questions about their controversial pastor, especially one as close as Mr. Wright was to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama honed his chops on the matter in 2008, back in what John Dickerson of Slate called “The Umbrage Wars.” This is how Geraldine Ferraro became an albatross around Hillary Clinton, and why a picture of Mr. Obama in Muslim garb was used to hit Ms. Clinton. But that umbrage was even different from this level of umbrage. If then Mr. Obama would use attacks on him and his background to rally support to his side, now he uses those attacks to raise questions about the attacker. The phrase “How could you?” has perhaps never been treated so literally.