by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Last week the Washington Post ran a piece on presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s high-school years, in which he supposedly was cruel to a shy, perhaps gay fellow student. The piece, mirabile dictu, appeared in the middle of the Biden-Obama reversal on gay marriage. Errors were spotted almost as soon as it was published, and the essay was summarily denounced as nonfactual by the family of the supposed victim of Romney’s supposed half-century-old callousness.
Of more interest was the reaction to the story. Aside from Romney’s gracious acknowledgment that he might have done something in his teens that he was not proud of (although he could not remember the Post’s hazing incident), and aside from the errors of fact pointed out in the Post story, apparent Romney supporters hit back hard — and in equally trivial fashion. If Romney was an insensitive preppie, well then, so was Obama — and for the matter, we had the punkish young Joe Biden. Almost immediately, all over the Internet, Obama’s own voice was heard reading from Dreams from My Father about his ancient drug use while in prep school, and about earlier unkind treatment of a middle-school girl chum. If high school is fair game in these doggy wars, then why not seventh and eighth grade?
For a year, we had heard from the liberal media the old tale of Seamus the dog, as a sort of Aesop’s fable warning about Mitt Romney’s innate cruelty. You see, on a family vacation, Romney in purportedly callous fashion put the family dog, Seamus, into a custom carrier on top of the family car. Forget about America borrowing $5 trillion in three years; worry instead about a dog on a car roof three decades ago.
But after yet another serial telling, suddenly the Romney supporters fought back: If Romney had confessed to putting the dog out like a masthead to the winds, Obama in his memoirs confessed to eating dogs! In short order, the Internet was flooded with Photoshopped images of cynophagia — as Obama munched on dachshund sandwiches and terrier burgers. I guess the point was that Americans would prefer putting Spot on top of the car to eating him.
The same trump had earlier happened with the “war against women.” Team Obama saw an opening with Rush Limbaugh’s crude “slut” putdown of Sandra Fluke — for which he later apologized — and attempted to inflate the slur as something emblematic of right-wing misogyny. But again it was not to be.
Limbaugh apologized; Limbaugh did not give money to the Romney campaign and indeed opposed his nomination in the primaries; and Limbaugh’s slur at least could be printed in family newspapers — in contrast to liberal Bill Maher’s. The latter’s profanity-laced and misogynistic sick rants against conservative women could not be quoted without dashes and asterisks. He never apologized. And he gave the Obama campaign $1 million in contributions. The desperate comeback of Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen that Ann Romney — a cancer and MS survivor and mother of five — had “never worked” (a point the odious Maher seconded) only made things worse, before this chapter of the doggy war was apparently called off by those who started it.
There have been more of these tit-for-tat, na-na na-na na-na doggy wars — with charges ranging from patrimonial polygamy to prep-school privilege — but you get the picture. So what can we learn from them, aside from the obvious fact that Barack Obama prefers not to talk about 40 months of 8 percent-plus unemployment, 1.7 percent GDP growth, $5 trillion in new debt, $4-a-gallon gas, and Obamacare?
Team Obama usually starts the exchange, either to distract from dismal economic news, or in zeal to portray Romney as aristocratic and out of touch — but without careful thinking about what the inevitable Romney rebuttal might look like.
The Romney people apparently will not run a repeat of McCain’s 2008 campaign, in which the candidate put such petty retaliation off limits. There will be no sanctimonious putdowns from Romney about dredging up Obama’s dog-eating past, in the manner in which McCain lectured his supporters about the inappropriateness of emphasizing the tripartite name Barack Hussein Obama — although Obama himself did, and would go on to focus on his middle name as proof of his multicultural resonance abroad. Just as Bill Clinton’s war room swore not to do a rerun of Mike Dukakis’s punching-bag 1988 campaign, so Romney apparently has determined not to repeat the McCain one-hand-tied-behind-the-back model.
In other words, each time we hear of an irrelevant hit on Romney, we will probably hear of something equally irrelevant — and worse — about Obama, in a way we never would have in 2008. Petty? A distraction from the failing economy? Of course, but the Romney people apparently believe that they must and will achieve deterrence by replying in kind and to such a degree that Team Obama will soon cease playing such a childish game of taunts.
But there is another, more interesting lesson from the doggy wars. These disclosures are supposed to emphasize the haughty, privileged upbringing and past of Mitt Romney: prep-school bully and homophobe, greedy financier, control-freak dad, and a thin happy-face veneer atop the vast hateful right-wing hit machine beneath. But, in truth, the contemporary Democratic party is no longer the old coalition of farmers, union workers, miners, and the lower middle class, but is run by the very wealthy. And so when the Post wished to emphasize Romney’s privileged prep school, did it not realize that Obama likewise went to a tony prep school? Does anyone believe hip left-wing Hollywood celebrities are less profane than talk-radio hosts? Does the present-day Democratic party not hinge on gift-giving from Wall Street, Hollywood, and academia? How can Obama supporters go after Bain Capital and yet hold their convention in Bank of America Stadium? Is Jon Corzine any less venal than was Ken Lay?
The tit-for-tat trivia wars were a bad idea for the Democrats in another sense as well. As we saw from the Republican primary campaign — especially the various hit pieces on the pasts of Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain — in today’s postmodern society of rampant drinking, womanizing, drug use, and shady financial deals, almost no one is above suspicion — but some are far less so than others. Liberals will mock Mormonism, but the doctrinaire avoidance of adultery, alcohol, tea, coffee, drugs, and nicotine is a political handler’s dream. In other words, to find run-of-the-mill dirt on Mitt Romney is going to be almost impossible, which explains why we are reduced to psychodramatic tales about a dog, Rush Limbaugh, and a 50-year-old regrettable prank.
Is the reverse true? Most incumbent presidents should have been fully vetted after nearly four years in office. But for a variety of obvious reasons, Barack Obama never was. He wrote two memoirs, one at a time when the impulse was to earn his advance through candor, not to offer the usual mush to protect a long-standing national political career. The result is that there are scads of things in Obama’s own first memoir (which now come over the Internet in his own voice) that were never cited in 2008, but most certainly can be in 2012.
After all, just because the media decided that they could destroy George W. Bush in 2000 with proof of a DUI or an admission of coke usage, or in 2004 with supposed lax attendance in the Texas Air National Guard, or Rick Perry in 2012 with graffiti on a rock, that does not mean that Obama’s exemption from commensurate scrutiny is always assured, especially since Obama himself has written about common drug use, drinking, and slothful attendance, and many of his earlier associates — Frank Marshall Davis, Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, the Rev. James T. Meeks, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — were criminals or unhinged or sometimes both.
In sum, why would the Left try disreputable means to vet a mostly staid Mitt Romney, when Obama himself has bandied about a colorful past that could supply endless rebuttal and countercharges?
So can we at least hope to see an end to these stupid doggy stories? I doubt it.
Quite the opposite: We will probably hear leaks about an undisclosed Romney ailment — only to wonder why Obama, alone of major candidates in recent decades, has never released his medical records. We should expect to hear that Romney got a B or C in some college course — only to remind us that Obama, alone of major candidates, does not want anyone looking at his college transcripts. Do we really wish to hear how an admitted prep-school serial use of beer, marijuana, and occasional coke, and a history of skipped classes, translated into admission into Occidental and then Columbia? We will hear another 19th-century Romney family polygamy story only to be reminded of a 20th-century Obama counterpart. We will be lectured about a fiery Mormon bishop only to hear it trumped by another racist rant from Jeremiah Wright.
That so far the Obama campaign’s trivial pursuit has always backfired hardly suggests that it will stop — especially as the economy continues to sputter. For the true believers who run Obama’s campaign, their messianic leader could not possibly have feet of clay — and so they seem shocked each time they find yet another new way of letting the nation see that he does.
©2012 Victor Davis Hanson