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I have often accused the Democratic Party of consistently bringing a knife to a gun fight.  Their performance in 2010, when the Republicans unleashed the Tea Party and the Democrats were always playing defense, is but the most recent example.  However, with the release of the new "Firms" ad by the Obama campaign, which explicitly lays down the gauntlet of criticizing Romney's record at Bain just a day after he demanded an apology for such attacks, it looks like the Democrats have finally learned how to incorporate the tactics Republicans have used successfully for years.

In many ways, this presidential election is a bizarro version of the 2004 contest, when a sitting president of tenuous popularity during an uncertain time faced off against a wealthy charisma-challenged Massachusetts politician.  Despite the fact that the war in Iraq had not gone as planned, despite president Bush's atrocious performance in the first debate, and despite the fact that he had not won a majority of the popular vote the first time around, Dubya managed to win reelection.

He managed to do it for a variety of reasons, not least his campaign's successful efforts to define their opponent early in the race.  Disregarding the fact that Shrub had come from as elite a background as they get, his campaign very deftly painted Kerry as a privileged, out of touch career politician with a penchant for flip flopping.  Kerry spent the whole campaign dealing with "issues" like his windsurfing hobby and ability to speak French, preventing him from launching effective attacks of his own.

More sinisterly, ads paid for by The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth took Kerry's biggest selling point and destroyed it.  The War in Iraq dominated the 2004 election, just as the economy takes up most of the attention now.  Kerry had first achieved fame through his protests against the Vietnam War after returning from combat.  In the fevered nationalistic days of paranoia after 9/11 his courageous stand against an immoral war would interpreted as "anti-American" or undermining the United States, something that would be political poison at the height of war abroad.  Kerry decided to avoid this kryptonite by playing up his sterling record as a war hero.  He effectively dodged his political past by playing up an aspect of his personal past, or so he thought.  The Swift Boat attacks were a bunch of low-down lies, but some of those lies hit their mark, and with Kerry's main claim to being a wartime president sullied, his chances of winning were severely handicapped.

Much the same is happening to Mitt Romney right now, and he is at an even greater disadvantage because, unlike the Swift Boat ads, the accusations that Romney profited from outsourcing and has money stashed in offshore bank accounts happen to be true.  Like Kerry, Romney finds himself in a luckless position because he has to run away from his inconvenient political past.   As of yet he has not staked his appeal to voters on his record as the governor of Massachusetts because he passed a health care law there almost identical to the "Obamacare" so detested by his political base.  This has forced Romney to put all his eggs in one basket and run on his record at Bain Capital, and to make vague statements that his time as a businessman gives him the right understanding of how to run the economy.  (Much the same as how John Kerry tried to use his military experience to show that this would make him a more ideal wartime president.)  Now the Obama campaign is very successfully going after Romney's record at Bain and his predilection for Swiss bank accounts and offshore tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, taking Romney's purported strength as an experienced businessman and turning it into a major liability.  In order to survive the accusations in the "Firms" ad, Romney will have to give a fuller accounting of his business and financial record, and the revelations contained behind his curtain of secrecy may very well end up being more damning than what we already know.

However, before we celebrate the apparent recent success of the Obama campaign too much, we have to remember that every attack brings about a counter-attack.  As the aforementioned Swift Boat attacks and infamous Willie Horton ad illustrate, the conservatives have all kinds of unprincipled allies with lots of cash to spread the most scurrilous lies.  They have been more than willing to appeal to the ugliest impulses in this country, from white racial resentment to homophobia, if it means that they can win an election.  Hunker down folks, because the response to "Firms" and related attacks on Romney's record at Bain will be a doozy.


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