Not that long ago, the Republican Party was a ruthless election machine. You may not have approved of its tactics (Willie Horton, anyone?) but you couldn't deny its results.
Now there's a new sheriff in town. Republicans have tried to paint Barack Obama as a Chicago politician. And they're right. Obama's presidential campaigns have been masterpieces of electioneering. And I'm not just talking about things like tapping into grassroots over the internet.
At every stage, the Obama campaign has showed a ruthless willingness to exploit any possible advantage, especially in terms of money. In 2008, Obama turned down public financing so he could take advantage of his fundraising machine, and buried the much poorer McCain campaign. McCain was likely to lose anyways, but no sense taking chances.
This cycle, the Obama campaign did something similar to Mitt Romney:
One Sunday in May, Mr. Messina, the manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, went to the president along with other top advisers and proposed an unorthodox strategy. The campaign, he said, wanted to spend heavily, starting immediately, on ads blasting away at Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.
"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.This is tough-minded, hard-nosed campaigning. Obama's campaign broke with conventional wisdom and attacked when the opposition was fiscally vulnerable. It's like kicking a guy when he's down, and if you've ever been around me when I'm watching an action movie, you'd know how much I favor that strategy. If there's a woman in peril who kicks her assailant in the groin and runs while he's on the ground, you'll hear me shout, "No, you idiot, kick him when he's down! You don't have to run if you fracture his skull and kill him!"
The strategy also caught Mr. Romney at his most vulnerable time. The Republican nominee had been damaged by the bruising primary season. He limped out of it in mid-April battered and short on money to defend himself.
His top advisers faced the harsh reality that no matter how much money they raised for the general election, they couldn't, under election law, spend it until Mr. Romney officially claimed his party's nomination in late August. Mr. Romney would have to weather months of negative ads without the financial resources to respond forcefully.
You don't have to admire the tactics or even the candidate to appreciate watching a master at work.*
* As one friend (who voted for Obama) noted when I described my admiration, "Too bad his team doesn't bring the same competence to governing!"