When it comes to over-the-top politics, the Obama campaign has set a new standard with its recent attempts to paint Mitt Romney as a felon.
This clever and utterly false allegation was advanced more than once by Stephanie Cutter, President Obama's deputy campaign manager.
During several days of media rounds that included some tough challenges -- "Felon?!" -- Ms. Cutter variously stuck to her guns, softened a bit, and finally, under relentless pressure, retracted the comment, or at least the felony insinuation.
But the fact that the campaign advanced the notion in the first place is revealing. Trying to define Mr. Romney in some criminal light was obviously a strategy and, not to leap to conclusions, suggests both desperation and a lack of any substantive criticism.
Here's how Ms. Cutter justified the original innuendo on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when co-host Mika Brzezinski pressed her on her use of the term. If Mr. Romney misrepresented himself on his Securities and Exchange Commission filings related to his tenure at Bain Capital, then he would have committed a crime, she said.
Sheesh. If/then: What a basis for defamation and slander. Applying that calculus, we're all guilty of somebody's random supposition.
But all is fair in love and politics, right? Or don't facts matter just a bit?
Extending fairness where none apparently is appreciated, there were a couple of facts that might have given one pause about Mr. Romney's relationship to Bain after he left in 1999 to reorganize the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. His name did still appear as head of Bain on paperwork between 1999 and 2002, according to the Washington Post, which could cast doubt on his assertions that he had no managerial role at Bain after 1999. But all one has to do is ask, and many did, and the answer was not confusing.
Mr. Romney was still a "passive, limited partner" with "no management capacity," according to a 2002 statement he filed with the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission. But his partners ran the company after Mr. Romney left -- rather hastily -- to save the Olympics.
Mr. Romney's name was first floated by the Olympic committee on Feb. 2, and he accepted the challenge on Feb. 11. Nine days is hardly enough time to pack a toothbrush, much less push the paperwork necessary to hand over a multibillion-dollar business.
The purpose of the Obama campaign's allegation was to paint Mr. Romney as that modern scourge -- an uncaring corporate suit who outsources jobs and lays off workers. It is true that Bain worked with some companies that outsourced jobs to other countries -- that most common of business practices, conceived not only to enhance profits but also to feed Americans' insatiable appetite for cheap goods. But all of it occurred after Mr. Romney's tenure.
The real purpose of the charge was to portray Mr. Romney as dishonest. This is what businessmen would call a hard sell, not least because Mr. Romney's assertions have been verified by independent sources, including the Washington Post.
In May, its Fact Checker wrote: "We've gone over this problem with the Obama campaign before, awarding three Pinocchios to a January memo the team released blaming [Mr.] Romney for job losses and bad deals that took place after the former executive had stopped working for Bain. … These facts essentially exonerate [Mr.] Romney from allegations that he was responsible for any outsourcing, bad deals, and layoffs that occurred with Bain's companies in the early 2000s."
Thus, the Obama campaign knew that what it was saying was false, but proceeded to try to plant the "felon" idea anyway. On July 2, well before Ms. Cutter made her media rounds, fact-checkers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center similarly exonerated Mr. Romney:
"After reviewing evidence cited by the Obama campaign, we reaffirm our conclusion that [Mr.] Romney left the helm of Bain Capital when he took a leave of absence in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics -- as he has said repeatedly -- and never returned to active management. The Obama campaign's recent ads thus mislead when they point to investments made by Bain, as well as management decisions made by companies in which Bain invested, after that time."
Fair play? Dishonest? Lazy? Or just plain desperate to grab any twig as Mr. Romney inches up in the polls?
It's a shame that Ms. Cutter, a smart, talented woman, was drafted for such a dastardly role. Negative ads are one thing; slander is quite another.
Kathleen Parker is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.
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