There's a great New York Italian expression called "ungatz." If you've got ungatz, you've got nothing -- you're whistling Dixie. Jewish New York will know this as "bupkis."
Ungatz is the perfect word to use in a poker game when staring down another player. "This guy's betting like he's Johnny Chan," you might say, "but I'm telling you, he's got ungatz." (don't try this line if you're Irish American like me.)
The Obama campaign has ungatz right now. You can tell because it keeps hammering away at Bain Capital -- which has been hammered to death -- and at Mitt Romney's tax returns. In political campaigns, when the cupboard of tricks runs barren -- when you've got ungatz -- there are two reliable jabs to throw. If you're behind, you challenge your opponent to debates and hope he refuses; if you're on a fishing expedition and your opponent is wealthy, you demand his tax returns, hope he says "no," or that he complies and something with legs pops up.
It's a way to get the attention off you and onto the other guy, if only to give you the breathing room to think of something else to do.
It's often observed that presidential elections are about the incumbent, when there is one, and that's largely true. But that doesn't mean it has to be. A sitting president with a spotty record doesn't have to lay back and accept the constant heat of the spotlight. It's his campaign's job to take the focus off him and put it onto the challenger -- in a negative way.
And then keep it there.
This is especially important for President Barack Obama's campaign. The president lacks popular achievements to fall back on. Sure, passage of Obamacare was historic, but much of the public despises the law, so his people can't harp on that. And it's hard to convince voters that unemployment would have been worse than 8.2 percent if Obama hadn't been at the nation's helm. Every day the campaign is about the unemployment numbers or the struggling economy, Obama is losing. Hence the Bain Capital and tax-return drumbeat.
The Obama campaign had a nice little run against Romney with the dog-on-the-roof thing. But then we learned that the president ate one for dinner. That stopped the barking. The high school bully story had a 72-hour news cycle, but Obama's own history has some vague spots, so they backed off that one. Besides, "You cut his hair!"; "You snorted cocaine!" is probably a losing exchange.
The Romney campaign, in contrast, has everything to work with. Any bad economic news between now and Election Day will be put at the president's feet -- and more is projected. The president also made some very specific employment number predictions and absurdly lofty speeches -- remember the halt of the oceans rising? -- that are perfect fodder for attacks against him.
The Huffington Post reported on a poll this week announcing that the Bain Capital criticisms are cutting into Romney's momentum in swing states. That raised eyebrows for a moment -- until you read who conducted the poll. It was commissioned by the Super PAC supporting the president, Priorities USA Action, and conducted by Global Strategy Group, a New York City polling house for Democratic campaigns. Issuing a poll to show that your attacks are brilliant and working -- that's another tactic when the quiver is empty.
None of this suggests the Obama campaign is done for. The president has a super talented political team, and it will almost surely come up with a new tack. Its researchers no doubt are working furiously to uncover something new -- anything -- to place the spotlight back on Mitt Romney.
But right now? Ungatz.