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If Obama goes negative, he'll lose more than gain

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • One report quoted sources saying Obama could launch tough negative campaign vs. Romney
  • LZ Granderson says if true, the strategy would be a big mistake
  • Obama ran on the idea that he would practice a different kind of politics
  • He says an incumbent should run on his record, not tear down his challenger

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, has been named Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, and a 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @locs_n_laughs. Watch him on CNN Newsroom Tuesdays at 9 a.m. ET.

Grand Rapids, Michigan (CNN) -- Earlier this week, Politico.com published a story quoting anonymous sources said to be close to the Obama re-election team. In it, the sources said the president's focus in the 2012 campaign will not be on his record but rather on attacking the presumed GOP candidate, Mitt Romney.

"Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney," said a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House, Politico reported.

Not to dismiss the reporting done by Politico, but because the sources are unidentified, it's hard to know how involved the individuals quoted are with the Obama campaign and how much of what they said is actually true. Obama adviser David Axelrod has since called the story "garbage" and said he would fire anyone trying to paint Romney as "weird" as part of the strategy.

Still, the Romney campaign wasted little time using an unattributed quote from the piece in a campaign ad, so true or not, the "kill Romney" strategy is out there.

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Now aside from the fact Romney may not even be the GOP nominee -- and judging by the excitement over Rick Perry's announcement, he's hardly a lock -- I don't believe such a strategy is smart because it is not going to woo undecided voters.

If anything, it's going to turn them off.

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After all, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain in part by appearing to be the least negative and the one most focused on issues.

To do an about-face in hopes of re-election would reek of the foul politics-as-usual stench he promised to clear out if elected. We can certainly debate whether he actually tried to do that before the reality of partisanship hit him in the face. However, if he allows personal attacks to shape his re-election bid, that debate is moot and his journey to the dark side complete.

Now granted, employing such a strategy will not automatically cost President Obama my vote or even the election. But it will certainly cost him a certain measure of respect.

He proved himself to be a decent man during a 2008 campaign that was at times ridiculous (Is he black enough?) and other times, nasty (Falsely saying he's a Muslim!). I would like to see him be confident in his record and hard on his opponent. But to resort to off-topic, personal attacks would simply be hypocritical and desperate.

And it's hard to respect a desperate hypocrite.

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Coming into Obama's presidency, most supporters knew some core Democrat principles would have to give way to Republican ones, which to me is fine because no one party has all the answers anyway. And even though many of the people who voted for him didn't always agree with his decisions as president, Obama the man has always been liked by most Americans.

That all changes if he starts slinging mud.

But more importantly, what does it say about how Obama views his first term if he chooses to run a campaign that seems to run away and not run on his record? How could anyone not see that as a self-issued indictment of his own performance or a validation of the GOP's assessment that his presidency has been a failure? Any attempt to frame Romney as "weird" may be good for chuckles, but it doesn't erase Obama's record in the White House.

Just as Romney touting his business background doesn't erase his lackluster record in creating jobs while governor of Massachusetts or Texas' Rick Perry blasting big government doesn't erase the fact he accepted more than $6 billion in stimulus money to help balance his state's budget.

Sometimes you are who you are, so Obama, as well as the eventual GOP candidate, might as well own what they've done because it's going to be brought up anyway.

Seeing a bunch of campaign ads talking about Romney's Mormonism -- the way the Swift Boaters questioned John Kerry's patriotism in 2004 or the push-polled voters insinuated McCain fathered a black child out of wedlock during the 2000 primaries -- is not going to make people forget the country's 9.1 unemployment rate.

At least not the people paying attention.

Besides, a person can only be president for eight years, but at 50, Obama will have to look himself in the mirror for much, much longer. That's why it's better for him to fight with honor, explaining to voters why he did what he did, as opposed to scheming like a conniving weasel.

Should the Obama campaign ever resort to smearing Romney or Perry or whoever the GOP candidate is, then to paraphrase the great philosophers Green Day, wake me up when November ends.

I may be able to stomach Obama compromising his politics from time to time, but I couldn't stand to watch him sacrifice his soul.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.