Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.
(CNN) -- Mitt Romney press secretary Rich Gorka's outburst in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday, during which he told a reporter to "shove it," is of a piece with the Barnumesque spectacle of his candidate's world tour. But to this veteran of many campaign tours, the incident raises a provocative question about modern campaign history: When and how did the Republicans become the championship party of whining?
Rahm Emanuel brought it up earlier this month with his bracing instruction to Romney to quit complaining about Democrats' negative campaign ads. Such ads, deployed against Rick Santorum et al, were after all the instrument that brought Romney the GOP nomination.
Any short history of the whining sweepstakes should start by noting that a tectonic shift is taking place when the candidates and handlers of one side begin asking, in some form, this question: Why are they being allowed to do to us what we've happily been doing to them since -- to choose a recent precedent to this partisan shift -- the swift boating of John Kerry? You see what's that led to? Why, these Obamians want to turn Romney's brilliant business career into an unpatriotic defect!
The current situation is noteworthy because the Democratic Party seemed to have the exclusive franchise on piteous bleating dating back to Richard Nixon's victory in 1968 and throughout the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years. Truth be told, the Democrats managed to keep whining throughout most of the triumphant Bill Clinton years.
The game changer clearly has been Barack Obama, whose surprising taste for bloodying the noses of domestic critics and foreign adversaries seems to hark back to the last time the Democrats were unashamed political warriors.
That would be 1960, when John F. Kennedy and his snarling little brother Bobby made political "ruthlessness," unrestrained campaign spending, Teamster support and Mayor Richard Daley's vote-counting techniques into virtues. The era of bullying Democrats pretty well ended with Jimmy Carter's cardigan sweater and "malaise speech."
Then, with the victory of Reagan in 1980, the Democrats' claimed the whining trophy outright.
Walter Mondale sealed the Democratic ascendancy with his high-pitched complaints about Reagan's "compassion gap." And it has taken Romney to mount a full-scale effort to take back the title. (Pioneering credit, however, must be given to Sen. Bob Dole with his plaintive cries of "Where's the outrage?" in response to voters' apparently bottomless forgiveness for Clinton's shenanigans.)
To find the wellsprings of 2012 Republican whining, I think one has to look at the party's setters of tone and themes.
Start with Romney and his cries of foul over the Obama campaign's use of "Chicago-style" politics. The vibe of this complaint is that of a suburban prep schooler who has wandered into a playground where the mean city boys took his football and then twisted his arm really hard.
The signature moment in this year's use of the W word came in early July when an Obama staffer said that Romney was either a "felon" or was "misrepresenting" in his Federal filing about the length of his tenure as head of Bain Capital. Like much of today's campaign talk, the accusation was hyperbolic, verging on the demagogic. In other words, it was well within the strike zone the Republicans institutionalized in 1988 when they turned the GOP's amiable hitman Lee Atwater loose with his "Willie Horton" ad against Michael Dukakis.
But when the White House dared escalate the rhetorical arms race, Romney feigned outrage. Now he wanted an apology even though he had defended his own blistering attacks last spring on his primary rivals as a standard part of grown-up politics. Romney's campaign even piled one whine upon another by running a commercial showing a plaintive Hillary Clinton saying "Shame on you, Barack Obama" during the savage 2002 Democratic primaries.
"Stop whining!" Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, demanded on the George Stephanopoulous Sunday show recently. ""If you want to claim Bain Capital as your calling card to the White House, then defend what happened at Bain Capital."
There's something inescapably petulant about Romney's preference for critiquing all aspects of the economy—but not his role at Bain. The Democrats should turn a deaf ear to his pleas for mercy on his record as a businessman and tax shelterer. The new Quinnipiac poll figures showing Obama ahead in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania demonstrate that Republican-style attack politics work for anyone with the gumption to use them, including this year's pugnacious Democrats.
For the rest of this election season, if Democrats are smart, they'll keep reaching into the Lee Atwater bad-boy trick bag and let the season's reigning choir of complaint blend its many voices: the charismatic duo of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the tea party, the anchors and panelists of Fox News and now the hapless Rich Gorka.
They all seem to know the same tunes: Why don't voters believe what we do? Why isn't Obama the milquetoast he looks like? Why can't we change the photo-op rules for Mitt?
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.