Rick Santorum's decision Tuesday to suspend his campaign effectively ends the GOP nomination fight. But it doesn't mark the start of the general election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. That contest has long been under way. Mr. Obama's speech to the Associated Press last week and two appearances in Florida on Tuesday provide a glimpse of the low road the president and his campaign likely will take.
He will distort beyond recognition his opponent's arguments. For example, he explained to news executives at the AP that Republicans want to "convert more of our investments in education and research and health care into tax cuts—especially for the wealthy." Actually, no one has suggested that.
No honest differences are possible with Mr. Obama. He will impugn the motives of any who disagree with him. As he told the AP, his opponents want to "let businesses pollute more and treat workers and consumers with impunity." His agenda "isn't a partisan feeling . . . [it]isn't a Democratic or Republican idea. It's patriotism." To disagree with him is unpatriotic. That's to be expected from Republicans, whom Mr. Obama says stand for "thinly veiled social Darwinism . . . [that is] antithetical to our entire history."
Mr. Obama will build entire edifices on top of one fake premise, all dressed up in one big phony assumption. Take the House GOP budget plan. It increases federal outlays from roughly $3.6 trillion this year to nearly $4.9 trillion in 2022. In the AP speech the president called this a "cut" because he wants to increase spending to $5.8 trillion in 2022.
He warned that if the GOP's "cuts . . . were to be spread out evenly across the budget," then "Alzheimer's and cancer and AIDS" research would be slashed, 10 million college students denied assistance, and "thousands" of researchers and teachers "could lose their jobs." But Republicans don't cut across the board. Instead, their focus is on waste, duplication, programs that do not work, and on reform.
As he did Tuesday at Florida Atlantic University, Mr. Obama will attack "these same trickle-down theories" about taxes that almost led to "a second Great Depression." But if the Bush tax cuts were so evil, why didn't Mr. Obama repeal them during his first two years, when his party controlled both houses of Congress? Instead, in December 2010 Mr. Obama agreed to extend them for two more years.
To divert attention from his administration's many failures, Mr. Obama will also offer poll-tested nuggets that pit the many against the few. Take Tuesday's demands for the so-called "Buffett Rule," a new 30% tax on anyone making $1 million a year.
He claimed at a California fund raiser last fall that this would "stabilize our debt and deficits for the next decade." But Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation projects it will only raise $47 billion in the next 10 years while Mr. Obama's budget spends $46.9 trillion and adds $9.6 trillion to the debt during that time. The Buffett Rule would cover 17 days of the president's next decade of deficits.
What Mr. Obama calls a "loophole" is the policy of taxing capital gains and dividends at a lower rate than income. He favors penalizing savings and investment when America needs more of both.
Among Mr. Obama's more appealing 2008 campaign lines were his pledge not "to pit Red America against Blue America" and his promise to "resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."
Mr. Obama gave into that temptation the moment he was inaugurated. His harsh attacks, angry misrepresentations and outright falsehoods are light years away from the message of unity and post-partisanship that propelled him into the Oval Office.
Mr. Romney will need to tap into the disappointment and regret that many Americans, even the president's supporters, feel about Mr. Obama. Yet while setting the record straight about the last three dismal years and Mr. Obama's attacks is important, it is not enough. Winning candidates for the American presidency offer a positive, optimistic agenda that reassures voters about what they will do once in the White House.
Mr. Romney also should remind Americans of Mr. Obama's lofty words from his 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver. There he said, "If you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from."
Mr. Obama attacked such a strategy then. Lacking any fresh ideas or a record to run on, it's the strategy he's adopted now.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, April 11, 2012.