WASHINGTON -- A year ago, President Barack Obama's political advisers set out to copy President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. They would mobilize their base. They would pummel and discredit the challenger. And they would exploit patriotism and national security to compensate for the president's weak economic record.
The strategy is working. In fact, it's working too well. Obama's campaign is embracing Bush's worst tactics. It's attacking the opposition as un-American.
The 2004 Republican National Convention was a McCarthyite orgy. Its speakers impugned the loyalty of anyone who dared criticize Bush. Rudy Giuliani branded Democratic nominee John Kerry "the anti-war candidate" and accused him of claiming "that certain foreign leaders who opposed our removal of Saddam Hussein prefer" Kerry to Bush.
John McCain brushed aside concerns about Bush's domestic policies, insisting, "We are not enemies, but comrades in a war against a real enemy. ... Stand up with our president and fight." The convention's keynoter, Zell Miller, charged, "While young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief."
Republicans in 2012 have partially replicated these tactics. Mitt Romney has repeatedly called Obama's ideas "foreign." Romney and his surrogates said Obama doesn't understand America. Democrats countered these attacks with economic nationalism. They blasted Romney for outsourcing jobs and mocked his rendition of "America the Beautiful." But this week, they turned up the heat, ruthlessly challenging Romney's patriotism.
The offensive began at 6 p.m. Tuesday in remarks by Newark Mayor Cory Booker: "When your country is in a costly war, with our soldiers sacrificing abroad and our nation facing a debt crisis at home, being asked to pay your fair share isn't class warfare. It's patriotism." Booker's statement seemed benign. But it signaled the Democrats' line of attack, casting a shadow of dishonor over anyone who opposed tax increases.
An hour later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) escalated the assault. He alleged that Romney "chose Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island tax shelters over American institutions. And we can only imagine what new secrets would be revealed if he showed the American people a dozen years of tax returns, like his father did."
Reid's speech sharpened the economic nationalism theme into an indictment of Romney's patriotism. In doing so, Reid exaggerated the extent of the cited accounts and their conflict with U.S. investment. While the value of Romney's Swiss account (which was closed two years ago) and his Cayman investments fluctuated, the average seems to have been possibly $25 million -- about 10 percent of Romney's assets -- of which $3 million was in the Swiss account. But why sweat the details or stick to the facts? Reid's hint at other shady entanglements "we can only imagine" was the perfect McCarthyite touch.
At 9 p.m., former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland abandoned all restraint. He declared: "Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. In Matthew, Chapter 6, Verse 21, the Scriptures teach us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. My friends, any man who aspires to be our president should keep both his treasure and his heart in the United States of America. ... Barack Obama is betting on the American worker. Mitt Romney is betting on a Bermuda shell corporation. Barack Obama saved the American auto industry. Mitt Romney saved on his taxes. Barack Obama is an economic patriot. Mitt Romney is an outsourcing pioneer."
That's worse than anything I can recall from the 2004 Republican convention. If a Republican speaker had used the New Testament to charge that Obama lacked patriotism and that his heart wasn't in this country, based on peripheral investments made by a blind trust, liberals would have gone insane with outrage. But when Strickland did it to Romney, Democratic delegates roared their approval.
Forty minutes later, Lilly Ledbetter, the former tire-plant manager who was infamously paid less than male colleagues for the same work, piled on. "Women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar men make," she told the delegates. "Maybe 23 cents doesn't sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account, Cayman Island Investments, and an IRA worth tens of millions of dollars." Again, the crowd roared.
At 10 p.m., Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley went nuclear. He said of Romney and Paul Ryan: "Instead of investing in America, they hide their money in Swiss bank accounts and ship our jobs to China. Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge. Swiss bank accounts never put cops on the streets or teachers in our classrooms. Swiss bank accounts never created American jobs. Gov. Romney, just because you bank against the United States of America doesn't mean the rest of us are willing to sell her out. We are Americans. We must act like Americans."
O'Malley is wrong on the facts. Banks lend money, and the top foreign recipient of Swiss investment is the United States. The $3 million Romney's blind-trust managers put into his Swiss account is a pittance compared to the $165 billion Switzerland invests in the United States, supporting some 300,000 American jobs. It's a global economy, stupid.
You can fault Romney for laying off workers. You can fault him for exploiting tax havens. You can fault him for withholding his tax returns. But when you depict overseas investment per se as evidence of a candidate's national disloyalty -- when you quote the Bible at him, deny that he's a patriot, and accuse him of selling out his homeland -- you've crossed the line. You might win an election that way. But it won't be worth what you've done to yourself and to this country.
Writer William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.com.