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Mark Shields: Presidential Campaign Stuck in Traffic Jam on Low Road

When the down-and-dirty election season is over, what will we have gained?

To the elected public executive running for re-election — whether mayor, governor or president — there remain just two alternative campaign strategies to victory: the High Road or the Low Road.

The High Road case for re-election goes like this: Look at all we have done together in our first term. Because of my policies and leadership, our people are more prosperous, our community is more united and, not coincidentally, Sunday school attendance is at an all-time high.

When, instead, unpleasant reality intrudes and there are no bows to be taken for a long list of widely acclaimed successes, the endangered incumbent candidate resorts more often to the Low Road route to re-election. This can be prefaced with a frank admission: Look, I admit that things have not always worked out the way you and I had planned. But the Other Guy, my election opponent, is the sort of wretch who would foreclose on the Little Sisters of the Poor and get his kicks from sticking bamboo shoots under the fingernails of widows and orphans. He must be stopped!

In case you have been in a cave or in solitary for the past couple of months, the 2012 campaign is now officially a traffic jam on the Low Road.

The campaign of our last re-elected president, Republican George W. Bush, outsourced its 2004 Low Road job to a mendacious band of deep-pocketed hit men who smeared the Silver Star-worthy courage-in-Vietnam combat of Democrat John Kerry. The fraud of contemporary national campaigns is that these so-called “independent” political action committees (PACs) organized to support a candidate are anything less than an indirectly controlled subsidiary of the candidate’s own campaign.

We saw that dramatically and disgustingly this past week when Priorities USA Action, a PAC backing President Barack Obama and headed by Bill Burton, former White House spokesman and Obama 2008 campaign operative, suggested in a TV commercial that Mitt Romney contributed to the 2006 death from cancer of Ranae Soptic, whose husband, Joe, had lost his job and health benefits in 2001 when Romney’s company Bain Capital closed down GST Steel where Joe Soptic had been employed.

The disgust to this slur was both immediate and intense. Obama campaign officials spent hours denying any control or influence over the “independent” PAC or familiarity with the Soptic family (“we don’t have any knowledge of the story of the family”) even though, just two months earlier, the Obama campaign itself had organized a conference call for reporters featuring former steelworker Joe Soptic testifying how Romney’s Bain Capital had, for a quick-buck profit, callously robbed him and his co-workers of their livelihoods and their pensions.

This is a long way from the hope and idealism of the 2008 Obama crusade that inspired millions. Four years later, disappointment is widespread even though up to now there appears to be more disaffection than defection.

Romney is no blameless victim. Personally and intensely disliked by practically every Republican who has ever run against him, he can be careless with the truth — charging, for example, that Obama has opened up “no new trade relations” with other countries in spite of the obvious facts that Obama, over the opposition of many Democrats, negotiated and won ratification of separate trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Still, such offenses cannot be compared to accusations of contributing to a cancer victim’s death.

The ultimate cost of the Low Road campaign is more than a dispirited and even disillusioned electorate, which it all but guarantees. The real problem is that when the down-and-dirty campaign is over, there has been no agreement reached between the voters and the leaders about what we must now do together as a nation. The only agreement reached is that the Other Guy, who lost, was somehow just worse. Precious little hope there.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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