Brace yourself. It's gonna get ugly.
No matter who wins today's Iowa Republican caucuses (which look like a showdown between Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and the surging Rick Santorum), this is shaping up to be the most lowdown, nasty, plain old disgusting presidential campaign we've ever slogged through. Think Watergate or the disputed Bush v. Gore contest, only worse.
This potential new low in our dysfunctional politics was made possible by the right-wing activist majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. Two years ago, in one of the worst rulings ever handed down by the court's wrong-headed judicial junta, all limits on corporate and individual contributions to independent political organizations were tossed aside, opening the floodgates to a tide of savage negative advertising by so-called super PACs.
Predictably, the GOP primary battle is already drowning in swill. The best current example: Restore Our Future, a super PAC that supports Romney, has spent nearly $3 million to destroy the campaign of Newt Gingrich, who was leading the pack in Iowa only a few days ago, by reminding voters that the former House speaker carries "more baggage than an airline."
Leave aside for a moment the undeniable fact that it's almost impossible to say anything that could further damage Gingrich's severely tarnished reputation. What's important is that Restore Our Future outspent Romney's official campaign organization by about 2-to-1 in Iowa, that it's not required to disclose where all that money came from until the end of January and that its nominal independence is a complete charade.
The group is run by former Romney campaign officials including his former political director, former chief counsel and, most ominously, Larry McCarthy, an ex-Romney media adviser who was one of the masterminds behind the overtly racist Willie Horton TV spots that obliterated Michael Dukakis in 1988.
These guys don't have to consult with Romney's campaign staff to figure out what kinds of underhanded and suggestive crap they should put on the air to put the knife into his opponents. That leaves Romney free to run positive ads on his own behalf, confident that the dirty work will be taken care of by somebody else.
What a setup! No wonder Romney acts as though butter won't melt in his mouth, even when he is dispensing a whopper. He'll say whatever it takes to win the nomination.
He won't back away from a ridiculously misleading TV spot that his campaign began airing last fall, which features an ostensibly damning quote from Barack Obama: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." The trouble is, the Romney ad doesn't mention the fact that Obama made the statement in 2008, not recently, and he was actually quoting his Republican opponent, John McCain.
In other blatant outbursts of untruth, he has falsely accused the president of going around the world apologizing for America and of advocating policies that would destroy our free market economy. He has even accused Obama — who, among many other belligerent acts, has used drone aircraft to kill more terrorists than George W. Bush — of practicing "appeasement." To which Obama promptly retorted, "Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 of 30 top al-Qaida leaders that I've taken off the playing field whether I have engaged in appeasement.”
That revealed a fighting side of Obama that we rarely see but that almost surely will be much more on display as the political drama that begins in Iowa today unfolds. The vicious broadsides that Romney, his rivals and their nefarious super PAC allies leveled at one another in Iowa were only a shakedown cruise in preparation for the all-out mudslinging, lies and distortion that the eventual GOP nominee will unleash when the battle with Obama begins — and the Democrats will answer in kind. Considering how vile some of our previous elections have been, the thought that we may sink to a new political low this year is really, really depressing.
Jack White keeps an eye on right-wing politics for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.