No one expected Campaign 2012 to be positive or uplifting. The country's problems are too severe and the battle lines between Republicans and Democrats have been hardened by almost four years of conflict between the White House and Congress.
But what is most striking about the campaign at this point is not just the negativity or the sheer volume of attack ads raining down on voters in the swing states. It is the sense that all restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back. The other guy does it, so we're going to do it too.
Mitt Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate seemed like an opportunity for the both sides to pause and reset after one of the ugliest weeks of the year. Instead, this week has produced the harshest rhetoric and the angriest accusations of the campaign.
Vice President Joe Biden triggered the latest round Tuesday with lines, that, had they been uttered by a Republican, likely would have set off an even bigger firestorm. Biden told an audience in Virginia that Romney would "unchain" the big banks if he were elected president and then added, "They're going to put y'all back in chains."
Biden later tried to temper his language, but the damage was done. Within hours, Romney unloaded on the president. Campaigning in Ohio, he said President Obama's "angry and desperate" campaign had brought disrespect to the office of the presidency. "Mr. President," he added, "take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
That brought an incendiary response from the Obama campaign. Spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney's comments "seemed unhinged."
Both Romney and Obama talk about this election being about big choices. That's certainly true, given the opposing worldviews of the candidates. But fear and anger motivate each side's activists. Partisans on both sides imagine the worst will happen if the other side wins. That, in turn, animates the strategies unfolding now.
Mock outrage has long been a part of every campaign's toolkit, but there is a sense now that the outrage is genuine, that the disrespect that the Chicago and Boston teams now feel for one another has escalated and becomes the justification for ever harsher attacks.
Neither side has had to look far to find an excuse to launch an attack or cry foul. Obama's allies took the campaign over the edge last week and the Obama campaign did nothing to stop it. The most egregious example of a campaign out of bounds was the ad prepared by Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting Obama.
The ad tied Romney to the cancer death of the wife of Joe Soptic, who lost his health insurance and his job when a steel company that Bain Capital had taken over while Romney was at the company later went bankrupt, after Romney left Bain.
The ad was not shown on television last week but did air in Cleveland this week. Obama campaign advisers at first tried to distance themselves from the ad by claiming they didn't know the details of Soptic's situation. In fact, they had used Soptic in one of their own ads earlier this year and put him on a conference call with reporters at the time.
The Obama campaign also has refused to denounce Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for making the unsubstantiated accusation that Romney paid no taxes for 10 years. He claimed that a Bain investor told him that, but he refused to identify the person or retract the claim when Romney denied the charge.
Mention the Soptic ad to the Obama team and instead of showing any remorse or regret, they point to the ad Romney aired that accuses Obama of gutting the work requirement in the welfare reform act that was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton in 1996.
The changes were in response to requests from some governors, including Republicans, who wanted more flexibility. Administration officials say they are not letting states off the hook on the work requirement and Clinton denounced the ad as a false charge. A leading Republican welfare reform expert has said it is "implausible" to believe Obama is trying to keep more people on welfare. Fact-checking outlets have declared the ad erroneous. Romney's campaign has doubled down rather than walk away.
Negative ads are now one of the growth industries in an otherwise weak economy. How much is being spent? Romney's campaign briefed reporters last Friday and included the following statistics. The amount of money spent on all advertising since early April in four key states is as follows: Florida, $95 million; Ohio, $92 million, Virginia, $68 million; North Carolina, $50 million.
News organizations instituted fact-checking and ad watches in reaction to earlier campaigns, when candidates were getting away with half-truths and worse, with little accountability. These have become robust and increasingly comprehensive. But they are not providing much of a check on the behavior of the campaigns.
The only check on the campaigns is the marketplace, said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. "If voters move against his attacks, he 1/8Obama 3/8 will move away from them," he wrote in an e-mail response to a question. "But right now, the attacks are working on swing voters. The other 90 percent of the public are pretty much fixed in their preferences. They may be unhappy about them 1/8the ads 3/8, but they are not driving the marketplace."
But there is no check on rhetoric. Romney and his advisers have been seething over the tactics of Obama's campaign and of its Democratic allies, from the ad implying that Romney was somehow responsible for the death of a woman to the president making what seemed like a joking reference Tuesday to the old story of Romney strapping his dog on top of the family car during a vacation trip.
Obama and his team have their own list of grievances about the claims and accusations that have come from Romney and his allies. They point to what they see as rhetoric questioning the president's patriotism and American values, code, they believe, for a revival of birtherism.
This campaign will end in November. Then it will be either Obama's or Romney's responsibility to try to govern. Both sides have turned the election into an all-or-nothing battle and hope to claim a mandate on the basis of the outcome. But it will take time and great effort for the winner to drain the poison from the system if the campaign continues on this course.