July 23 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. presidential election, by some accounts, is sinking to record depths of negativity and nastiness, with unprecedented attacks on Wall Street, especially the private-equity industry.
It’s enough to send the children inside.
Except that it isn’t true. There are still more than 100 days to go, but so far the tone and tenor of the contest between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is tame by historical standards.
The Republican candidate has said the president is in over his head on the economy and displays an antipathy toward business. Obama has painted Romney as an out-of-touch elitist who, as a businessman, became rich while milking companies and destroying jobs.
Sometimes the charges get a bit rawer, though not beyond normal boundaries.
Within both campaigns there are excesses.
The word “lies” is tossed around too freely. Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, raised the possibility that Romney might have committed a felony in his filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire and a leading Romney supporter, said he wished Obama “would learn how to be an American.” Sununu later apologized and Cutter sought to walk back her comments.
Their political predecessors would chuckle over such stuff being called nasty.
Let’s start with one of the first presidential elections, Thomas Jefferson against John Adams in 1800. A Jefferson hired hand wrote that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensitivity of a woman.” In return, Jefferson was called “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
You don’t have to go back centuries to find out what really nasty is. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign circulated a television ad featuring an adorable little girl and a nuclear explosion, suggesting that his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, would precipitate a thermonuclear war. The LBJ forces also crafted a coloring book in which kids could fill in pictures of Goldwater wearing Ku Klux Klan robes.
In 1988, the unusually honorable George H.W. Bush sanctioned a blatantly racist ad tying a furloughed convict, Willie Horton, to the Democratic presidential aspirant, Michael Dukakis. Eight years ago, a rich Texan financed ads that maliciously and falsely questioned the heroic military service in Vietnam of the Democratic nominee, John Kerry.
Still, this time, there are widespread complaints in the business community, and especially the financial sector, that Obama is running a demagogic campaign against them.
A while back, Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman of Blackstone Group LP, compared Obama’s plans to raise taxes on private-equity executives to the Nazis’ designs on Europe: “It’s a war; it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
More recently, and less over-the-top, Paul Levy, the managing director of the private-equity firm JLL Partners, said Obama had “undertaken a broadside” against his industry.
“He has demonized people who are successful,” Levy said. More moderately, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., has said he’s “disturbed” at some of the Democrats’ anti-business behavior.
It’s fortunate that these super-sensitive executives weren’t around in earlier times. Obama hasn’t come close, in eloquence or harshness, to matching Teddy Roosevelt’s rant against “malefactors of great wealth.” Or TR cousin Franklin’s boast that he proudly welcomed and had “earned the hatred of entrenched greed.” Or John F. Kennedy’s comments, after a showdown with steel executives, that his father had warned him that businessmen were “sons of bitches.”
If tycoons are upset about today’s rhetoric, they should try to imagine what the Roosevelts would have said about recent Wall Street excesses that helped bring the global economy to its knees.
Likewise, the Obama camp is attacking Romney’s background as a private-equity executive at Bain Capital LLC. The Republican nominee made this, not his one stint in government service in Massachusetts, the raison d’etre of his candidacy and exaggerated his exploits. The merits of the Obama charges can be debated; putting the issue on the table shouldn’t be.
Similarly, it is legitimate for Romney to rail against “labor bosses” or “labor stooges.” (Romney’s assertion that a former teachers’ union president once said he didn’t represent the interests of school children because “they don’t pay union dues” is fiction, however.)
And when Obama makes careless comments such as “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” as he did July 13 in Virginia, the Republicans naturally will pile on. (In reality, the president was talking about infrastructure, not businesses.)
The rhetoric against financial executives or oil companies is no different than that against teachers or union leaders. That’s what political campaigns are about.
This contest isn’t alarmingly negative or unfair. It also isn’t edifying.
One of these guys will be elected president and will immediately have to deal with a fiscal crisis that will test his political and leadership skills. What they’ve said and how they’ve behaved to date will make that task harder.
(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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