MITT ROMNEY’S first TV ad of the 2012 race has already been heralded as a new political low: It appears to show President Obama declaring that if he runs on the economy, he will lose - never mind that the clip actually dates from 2008, and Obama was quoting an adviser to John McCain. But even more cynical than the ad itself has been the public reaction from Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime spokesman. The slice-and-dice nature of the ad was “all deliberate,’’ Fehrnstrom told the Globe. “It was all very intentional.’’ He said the ad was meant to spark a conversation, and that it was the role of the press to sort out the truth.
On one level, there’s something appealing about Fehrnstrom’s stark political honesty: acknowledging a process that favors distortion over reality, and admitting a campaign’s role in that cynical game. But Fehrnstrom also knows how unlikely it is that voters who stumble across the Romney ad would do the follow-up work of checking the facts. And his actions are part of a pattern. In August, on behalf of Senator Scott Brown, Fehrnstrom created the @CrazyKhazei Twitter feed, a mean-spirited string of anonymous attacks on then-challenger Alan Khazei. Fehrnstrom’s role - and Brown’s connection - were exposed when Fehrnstrom mistakenly sent an anti-Khazei tweet from his personal account.
It’s no news that politics can be a brutal business that requires toughness of character. And it’s unlikely that any campaign, Obama’s included, will completely resist the pull of negative campaigning. But what Fehrnstrom’s extreme version of political nihilism really does is hurt the candidates he works for: men who are running on their integrity, at a time of great distrust in political institutions. When an aide becomes the story - and the aide is gleefully defending the most base aspects of the process - his boss, the politician, has a problem.