Worst. Campaign. Ever. Obama and Romney aren’t telling the truth about much. Does it matter?

At the end of his just completed four-state bus tour, Mitt Romney stood on the courthouse steps in Chillicothe, Ohio, this week to accuse President Barack Obama’s campaign of making “wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency.” Departing from the notion of chilling out in Chillicothe, Romney also declared, “His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then cobble together 51 percent of the pieces. If an American president wins that way, we all lose.”

Stop right there. The easy course--as Richard Nixon, the past master of guttersnipe politics might put it--would be to sort out in Solomonic fashion the misleading, the malicious and the mendacious claims on both sides. But some days (alert: major journalistic confession ahead) it seems too dispiriting to try to clean the muck out of the Augean stables of the 2012 campaign. So, instead, let’s focus on the provocative question embedded in Romney’s comments.

Is there a direct connection between the way you run for the presidency (or re-election) and the way you govern from the White House? Do the American people automatically lose when a president is elected after a campaign so dishonest that it would embarrass Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall?

The easy course (memo to self: stop channeling Nixon) would be to state flatly that character counts and a campaign style inevitably will be carried over to the Oval Office. Nixon provides the classic example. But there is also a conspicuous exception to this rule--and that bygone political season has eerie similarities to the Obama-Romney race.

Since I began covering presidential politics more than three decades ago, the worst campaign in terms of both morality and truthfulness was the one waged by George H.W. Bush in 1988 against a hapless Michael Dukakis. It was marked by blatant racial appeals (Willie Horton, a released African-American violent criminal, became a symbol of Dukakis’ permissiveness), sneering cracks about his rival’s patriotism (Bush pointedly visited a flag factory) and even a whispering campaign hinting that Dukakis was mentally ill (President Reagan on his vice president’s opponent: “Look, I don’t want to pick on an invalid”). 

Bush, a sitting vice president who preferred foreign policy to the awkward rituals of politics, subcontracted his campaign to brass-knuckled campaign strategist Lee Atwater and brash media consultant Roger Ailes, who later created Fox News in his own image. As Roger Simon memorably put it in “Road Show,” his chronicle of the 1988 campaign, “Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater were the perfect Good Cop/Bad Cop team, but with one twist: there was no Good Cop.”

Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, was the perfect foil with an aversion to fighting back. If Bush disdained politics out of a sense of patrician detachment, then Dukakis embodied the anti-politics of the good-government crusader. Yet when it came to substance, Dukakis was at Romney levels of vapidity, promising little more than “good jobs at good wages.” As liberal journalist Sidney Blumenthal wrote in “Pledging Allegiance,” his 1988 campaign book, “Dukakis had become the standard-bearer of the oldest political party on earth by saying as little as possible.”

Throw in Dukakis in a tank and the most inflammatory presidential debate question in history: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” The result was inevitable: Bush carried 40 states in a landslide.

But once elected, President Bush displayed little resemblance to Candidate Bush, who had put his integrity in a blind trust administered by Atwater and Ailes. Rather than a take-no-prisoners partisan warrior in the Oval Office, Bush governed through a mixture of civility, compromise (he was a Republican who raised taxes) and competence (he deftly handled the collapse of the Soviet Union). In his 1988 convention acceptance speech--a soft moment in a harsh campaign--Bush called for a “kinder, gentler nation.” During his one term as president, he tried to achieve it. 

What makes the 1988 campaign so relevant today is that Obama and Romney are the first pair of presidential candidates since Bush and Dukakis who behave as if politics are beneath them. Watching Obama you have the sense that he would rather read a book or a stack of position papers than spend three days on a bus touring Iowa. Romney seems to have two styles as a candidate--stiff and wooden. Although their backgrounds are diametrically different, both Obama and Romney appear to wish that the keys to the Oval Office were awarded after acing an exam or honing an oral argument rather than mastering the messy populist rituals of the campaign trail.

Without an inherent respect for politics, Romney and Obama are not afraid of dishonoring its traditions in the quest for power. Romney, in television ads that he authorized and in speeches, has repeated the blatant falsehood that Obama has enacted a plan “to gut welfare reform” by removing its work requirement. Obama’s favorite Super PAC, the only one that he encouraged his donors to support, has been running on the web a deceptive ad in which a laid-off steelworker blames Romney and Bain Capital for his wife’s death from undetected cancer. The story is sad, but the woman died five years after the steel plant closed and had health insurance for part of that period.

America in 2012 faces problems of unprecedented complexity, from the moribund global economy to a never-ending shadow war against terrorists. But our political dialogue seems to ban any thought more complex than can be expressed in a 30-second attack ad. In the midst of the most depressing presidential campaign in nearly a quarter century, the only hope is that the victor in November--Obama or Romney--will transcend the distortions and the untruths that got him elected, as George Bush did back in 1988.

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