Michael Gerson

These are not excesses; they are the essence of Obama's current political strategy. He is attempting to destroy Romney before Romney can define himself, while using a series of issues -- the mini-DREAM Act, voting rights and contraceptive controversies -- to excite his base. The approach is not politically irrational. But it is premised on the avoidance of issues such as unemployment and the deficit. And it leaves little room for complaints about the brokenness of Washington.

Will this strategy succeed? So far, it hasn't seemed to change the fundamental dynamics of the race, which remains both very close and remarkably stable. Negative charges usually work when they have the ring of truth, and Romney -- though he has his weaknesses as a candidate -- does not fit the part of a sleazy businessman or a Nixonian liar.

But these tactics do have an effect on politics. The most partisan Democrats are encouraged and empowered. The most partisan Republicans gain an excuse for the next step of escalation. This is the nature of polarization: Both sides feel victimized, which becomes a justification to cross past limits and boundaries. Neither side feels responsible for the problem, while both contribute to it.

Obama and his political team have a history of viewing themselves as superior to Washington and the "Beltway mentality." The president combines a feeling of superiority to politics with a determination to beat his opponents at their own grubby game. It allows him to view himself as a pure, transformative figure while employing the tactics of a Chicago pol.

It is also one reason, according to Gallup, the gap between partisans' approval ratings of Obama has been "historically high." This does not mean the GOP bears no responsibility. It only means Obama has made Washington more broken and continues to make it more broken -- both responding to grievances and creating new reasons for grievance.

Meanwhile, America is well on its way to a disturbing destination: A nation with the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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