July 18, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: The author writes that the 1988 Willie Horton ad should be in the Negative Ad Hall of Fame. | POLITICO Screen grab
By Matthew Stevenson:
One reason so many campaign contributions end up funding negative advertisements — all that footage of a teenage Mitt Romney shaving the heads of gay classmates or young Barack Obama heading off with his lunchbox to a madrassa in Indonesia — is because the pleasure of elections is to say no to some person or idea.
Lost in the articles devoted to Obama’s “likability” is the probability that Democratic voters are still pulling levers to keep George W. Bush on his Crawford ranch. They may like Obama — but they still loathe W.
In the same vein, many Romney voters believe not only that Obama is establishing a beachhead of socialism in Washington but that the ghost of Bill Clinton could again be footloose in D.C. and they need to protect the republic from Whitewaters of greed and lust.
Most of us like to vote against something. The purpose of giving the candidates millions is so that campaign advertisers can remind us of what we hate — be it “affordable” health care, Abu Ghraib, the PATRIOT Act, unfunded Social Security or Sarah Palin’s historiography.
In Frank Rich’s New York magazine panegyric to the dark arts (“Nuke ’Em: Why negative advertisements are powerful, essential, and sometimes [see ‘Daisy’] even artistic”), he argues that “the president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory.”
The reason so few votes are cast for something positive is because it is difficult even for C-SPAN pundits to decode if Obama’s drone strikes are working. Or if Romney has any ideas how to create a few jobs — especially since the car elevator in his summer house does not come with a human operator.
Conversely, hindsight lends itself wonderfully to 30 seconds of venom — about how Solyndra generated power only by burning through government loans or that Romney’s ideal business day is to lay off a few steelworkers or ship money to the Caymans.
Most recently, the president’s negative ads have cast Romney as the head of a Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, robbing the middle class as if it were a mail train crossing the Dakotas, ending with the phrase: “Just what you would expect from a guy with a Swiss bank account.” Worse, as governor of Massachusetts, he once relocated a call center to Canada.
The effective negative ads, like tabloid headlines, are those that confirm what everyone suspects, plant lingering suspicions or, best of all, generate a denial. Obama won the round that had Romney asking for a retraction for all the mean things he was saying about Bain.
To work, negative ads need a salacious rumor that is difficult to refute — the reason illicit sex is a tabloid favorite — and a source wrapped in an invisibility cloak. When Sen. Ed Muskie cried in New Hampshire in 1972, effectively ending his presidential candidacy, he was denying the negative charge (fabricated by President Richard M. Nixon’s henchmen) that he had slurred French-Canadians and that his wife was a lush.
Done right, negative ads — which have been around in the United States at least since the 1800 election — have to be lethal and game changers. To accomplish that, most candidates in the history of the republic have been quick to label their opponents as swindlers, bigamists, Klansmen, gold diggers, slave drivers, warmongers, deists, abortionists, monarchists or papists, among other virtues.
Benjamin Harrison got off lightly: He was called “the Human Iceberg” and “Kid Gloves,” and he won.
Video clips are now the media format that delivers these unhappy messages. Daggers were previously delivered in letters, anonymous pamphlets, newspaper columns and political whispers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was a master of the back-stabbing leak — like those that put New York’s master builder Robert Moses in his place.
President Lyndon B. Johnson went negative in 1964 with a legendary TV spot, aka “Daisy,” that shows a young girl picking the petals off a flower, followed by the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb — to suggest that his opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, was crazy enough to drop the big one.
In 1972, Nixon made it known that his opponent, George McGovern, stood for the “three A’s,” which were “amnesty, abortion and acid.” The “plumbers” breaking into the Watergate are best understood as attack-ad researchers.
Rich’s advice to the president is to go nuclear. “The task for the Obama campaign,” he writes in a recent issue, “not nearly as easy as the “Daisy” ad makes it look, is to nuke him first in 60 seconds of gut-wrenching and — dare one say it? — nauseating TV.” Clearly, the president got the message.
Looking for an early knockout, the Obama campaign is no doubt working on follow-ups tocurrent trailers about Romney’s offshore connections, opposition to the U.S. auto bailout, his heart transplant on the Massachusetts health care law and how often Bain went short on the American dream. The Obama Mad Men will probably draw the line, however, before making a spot about “The White House of Mormon.”
To dig at Obama, Romney’s ad men should stay away from the themes of a Manchurian candidate — hence, no footage of a manger birth in Kenya — and deal with celebrity Obama as would the National Enquirer: with long lenses, grainy photos and checkout-grabbing headlines. (“I Faked Osama’s Killing … We’re Cousins”)
Simply answering Obama’s attack ads (“Bain: Nicer than you think!”) won’t help Romney win the election. The reasons voters may reject Obama is because they are tired of being out of work, in debt, at war or in foreclosure. To which the president’s answer is another big network interview and the great news that the Internal Revenue Service will chase you down if you don’t stump up $20,000 a year in new health insurance premiums.
A risk of negative ads is that they sometimes flatter the intended target. Who would not think better of Romney if it were discovered he was capable of cost cutting?
Effective negative ads can, however, often aim right at the heart of a candidate’s strongest asset. Remember that war-hero John Kerry, after “reporting for duty,” went down on his Swift boat. The same could happen to Obama were Romney to find gold perhaps by questioning the fictional aspects of “Dreams from My Father.”
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign now has no claim that attack ads are beneath the dignity of a presidential campaign. I’m also sure that the Romney team is capable of producing its own “nauseating TV.”
Most negative ads, like those that put Obama in the ark with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, only get dreamed about — but never made. But their success can be remarkably long lasting. The 1988 Willie Horton spot, for example, should be in the Negative Ad Hall of Fame.
Horton is the Massachusetts prisoner in for life whom Gov. Michael Dukakis let out for the weekend and who then went on to commit assaults and rape. His cameo appearance for George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign (heading out of prison through a revolving door) painted Dukakis as feckless and, when combined with his American Civil Liberties Union membership, more concerned about helping criminals than law-abiding citizens. This negative image stuck.
Negative ads are street politics, set to vaudeville if not puppet shows, that should have no place in a serious election. No one believes any of it, of course — except the voters.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is “Whistle-Stopping America.”