Why campaign 2012 didn't really stop on 9/11

Sept. 11 is a day of remembrance, but it's also a day closer to a fiercely contested presidential election, and the campaign – via Internet, mail, even speeches – is hard to turn off.

Scott Sady/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to members of the National Guard Association Convention in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 11, 2012.
Jason Reed/Reuters
A member of the audience wears a Mitt Romney hat as President Obama greets members of the audience at a ceremony commemorating the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon near Washington on Sept. 11.

On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks both President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney stood down their attack ads, at least for 24 hours. Both marked the occasion with solemn, national security-themed appearances – Obama at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., and Romney at a National Guard convention in Reno, Nev. Both tweeted about their patriotic feelings and heartfelt reactions to that now-distant, terrible day.

Does that mean that campaign 2012 ground to a halt for a welcome respite? Nope, it doesn’t mean that, not really. The battle for the White House continued almost apace.

Those attack ads might not have aired in Ohio and Florida, for instance, but that doesn’t mean the campaigns pulled them off the Web. Targeted Internet political advertising – an increasingly important part of campaigning – kept right on going. We received both an invitation to sign President Obama’s birthday card and to donate $25 to Mitt Romney while flipping through web sites in advance of writing this article.

The candidates’ own campaign home pages were pretty much business as usual. Obama’s site featured a fund-raising appeal from First Lady Michelle Obama and some photos from the just-concluded Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Mitt Romney’s page led with a big photo of the candidate and his VP pick, Paul Ryan, smiling and waving to a crowd, along with a video about the national debt that’s accumulated under Obama. Romney, at least, had his tweets about the day displayed in a corner.

The Obama team continued with their practice of giving interviews to media figures that aren’t members of the Washington press corps. On Sept. 11, the president appeared on the morning Miami radio show of Cuban-American rapper DJ Laz, where he razzed the host about the football Dolphin’s pitiful pre-season record before launching into a more traditional campaign defense of his Medicare policies.

The conservative news site Breitbart.com was quick to point out that another of DJ Laz’s nicknames is “pimp with a limp," and that Obama had time to talk football during the appearance but made no mention of 9/11 itself.

Meanwhile, the candidates traded veiled, long-distance shots at each other’s positions. In his speech in Reno, Romney said it was not the time or place to detail differences with his opponent, but continued on to criticize defense cuts scheduled to take place next year as part of the automatic budget “sequester," while saying the current end game for the war in Afghanistan lacks a clear mission.

In his own remarks at the Pentagon Memorial, Obama noted that “Osama bin Laden will never threaten us again." That’s an obvious point to mention in such a speech, but it also got mentioned quite a bit from the podium at the DNC in Charlotte.

Why the continued, sub-rosa campaigning? Well, modern presidential campaigns engage in ferocious political combat, and it’s hard to turn that off. Much political advocacy now occurs in small bites now anyway, via targeted e-mails, segmented Internet ads, direct mail appeals to specific groups, and so forth. It’s not all about ad buys in Colorado and whistle-stop speeches to hundreds of supporters.

Plus, the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 may mark a turning point of sorts. Many of the official ceremonies this year, even those at Ground Zero, were smaller than those of 2011’s tenth anniversary, wrote Vivian Yee yesterday in The New York Times.

“Even where the annual ceremonies are continuing largely unchanged, organizers are anticipating the day when the anniversary may be marked more quietly,” wrote Ms. Yee.

After all, as the event becomes more distant, it’s natural that society’s grief will lessen, adds Jen Doll at The Atlantic. But even so, it’s important to remember that’s not true for everyone, especially those who lost loved ones on what was a cruelly beautiful, yet awful day.

“As we talk of moving on and scaling back we should remember that there are plenty of people for whom, since that day in 2001, some things are forever unchanged,” writes Ms. Doll.

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