What about the White House’s insistence that Romney was lying about the president’s record, or Romney’s displeasure that Obama attributed to him the private sorrows of individuals who lost their jobs after Bain Capital acquired their employers? The short answer is that such distortions are part of the altogether permissible political game of dramatic overstatement and policy imprecision.
Sure, Romney wasn’t exactly telling the truth when he accused Obama of “apologizing” to the world. But it was true that Obama came to office with the express strategy of reassuring America’s allies that he wasn’t Bush, and that the swashbuckling, “time of our choosing” nightmare of foreign policy disasters was over. Any democratically elected politician in any country on Earth would be inclined to characterize this stance as “apologetic” to win votes.
A pro-Obama ad (not produced by the campaign) that told a heartbreaking story of a woman’s fatal cancer after her husband lost his job in a Bain Capital firing was also not, strictly speaking, true. (It turned out that five years had elapsed, and that she had her own health insurance from a separate job until that job disappeared.) But the point of the ad was to suggest that a man who got rich acquiring firms and resizing them for resale was not likely to feel sympathy for those who became unemployed as a result.
Show me a politician who would not take this approach against a private-equity millionaire, and I’ll show you a person who couldn’t win an election for dogcatcher. People in finance and private equity may feel personally offended by the ad, but that is because they aren’t running for anything.
In the 1800 presidential election, John Adams’ supporters said that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist who was having an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings. Of course, both of these charges were more or less true. But that isn’t the point: Mudslinging of the personal, character-assassination type is a longstanding and persistent feature of our electoral politics. This time around, however, two basically decent men took the high road. In this highly polarized, highly partisan moment in our political history, we should allow ourselves a moment to appreciate just how impressive this really was. Well done, candidates.
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.