Bombs Away: What’s so bad about those negative ads?

English: Photograph shows head-and-shoulders p...

You’ve probably already witnessed some the verbal hand-wringing in the news media about the toxicity of the political attack ads invading America’s living rooms.

Never mind that these journalists and talk show hosts, especially cable news, are among the worst enablers of the vitriol in our politics.

Theirs is an almost-comical obsession with conflict over policy. Watch any news network, or read any newspaper editorial page in the next few months, and you’ll see plenty of lectures from the media’s high priests about the dangers that negative ads pose to our democracy.

But before you subject yourself to all that pious baloney (thanks for that delightful phrase, Newt), please spend a few minutes reading the wonderful new cover story in New York magazine by columnist Frank Rich. It’s a full-throated defense of negativity.

Rich shares my belief that negative campaigning doesn’t threaten our democracy; it’s evidence that we have one.

Presidential elections should be about honest differences of opinion, clashing views about policy, struggles over the direction of the country. We really shouldn’t want the candidates to devote all their time to discussing common ground. We should want to know how they’re different and where they differ.

Full disclosure, perhaps the reason I’m most eager to share Rich’s very good piece is that a good portion is drawn from my book on the 1964 presidential election, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics. Rich suggests the famous “Daisy Girl” spot (watch it at this link), could teach Obama quite a bit about how to challenge Romney.

Rich opens by noting that President Obama began the campaign, as he should have, attacking Mitt Romney:

Obama was playing by the rules, honoring historical precedent in both parties, and pursuing the one must-do task before him in an election year (winning). And yet from the blowback that erupted once his Bain ad hit the fan—from his own camp, from the pious arbiters of Beltway manners, and, of course, from his adversaries—you’d think Romney was an innocent civilian under assault by a drone.

The serious questions raised by the early Obama ads are not whether they were too much but too little: Was waiting until May behind the curve? Are the ads vicious enough to inflict lasting damage? Is there a nuclear option in Obama’s advertising arsenal that can blow Romney out of the water as LBJ’s immortal mushroom-cloud “Daisy” ad did Barry Goldwater on Labor Day in 1964? Given the anemic employment numbers and the pack of billionaire GOP sugar daddies smelling blood after their Wisconsin victory, a reboot of hope and change would truly be the reelection campaign’s most self-destructive option. Obama is embarking on one of the roughest political races in memory, not a nostalgia tour. He is facing an opponent with a proven record of successful carpet-bombing attacks, as Gingrich and Rick Santorum can attest. Just because that proposed super-PAC stink bomb branding Obama as a “metrosexual” disciple of a frothing-at-the-mouth Reverend Jeremiah Wright was aborted doesn’t mean that more of the same and uglier aren’t on the way. The premise of Romney’s entire campaign amounts to one long complaint against Obama, and shadowy donors whose names you’ll never learn can do the dirty work under PAC cover while Romney claims his hands are clean.

The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory. The notion that negative campaigning is some toxic modern aberration in American democracy is bogus. No campaign may ever top the Andrew Jackson–John Quincy Adams race of 1828, in which Jackson was accused of murder, drunkenness, cockfighting, slave-trading, and, most delicious of all, cannibalism. His wife and his mother, for good measure, were branded a bigamist and a whore, respectively. (Jackson won nonetheless.) In the last national campaign before the advent of political television ads, lovable Harry Truman didn’t just give hell to the “do nothing” Congress, as roseate memory has it. In a major speech in Chicago in late October 1948, he revisited still-raw World War II memories to imply that the “powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions”—that would be the Republicans— and their chosen front man, Thomas Dewey, were analogous to the Nazis and Hitler. Over-the-top? Dewey was a liberal by the standards of the postwar GOP and had more in common with a department-store mannequin than with a Fascist dictator.

Rich cites, among other things, a very good book by Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer, In Defense of Negativity.

A good defender of attack ads is hard to find—aside from those political consultants who gorge financially on the media buys that put those ads on the air. One exception is John Geer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt whose In Defense of Negativity, published in 2006, may be the last, and possibly the only, serious word on the subject. In defiance of the whither-democracy laments of such fellow academic authorities as Kathleen Hall Jamieson (the author of Dirty Politics) and Thomas Patterson (The Vanishing Voter), Geer chastises all the doomsayers for being “so worried about ‘civility’ in campaigns.” He argues not just that “democracy can survive negativity” but that “without negativity, no nation can credibly think of itself as democratic.” He points out, as others have, that negative ads tend to be more accurate than positive ads—a low bar, to be sure—and contain more news that voters can use. Mike Murphy, the irrepressible GOP political operative and wit, agrees. “We have a joke in the business,” he told Geer, that “the only difference between negative and positive ads is that negative ads have facts in them.”

Like me, Rich is not overly impressed with the quality of ads, attack or otherwise, so far in the contest between Romney and Obama.

One could argue that the best political ad of 2012 so far has been made not by any campaign but by Chrysler, whose Super Bowl “Halftime in America” spot, narrated by Clint Eastwood, was so arresting, and, intentionally or not, so supportive of the auto-industry bailout, that Rove hailed it as an “extremely well-done ad” even as he said he was “offended” by its seeming Obama partisanship. What that ad had that the others have not is the indirection and ambiguity that allow the audience to engage with and invest in the story being told. An attack ad has a similar potential to corral some of the majestic power of movies, with or without an iconic Hollywood star in the mix—if done right.

Here, however, is where I differ with Rich.

Doing it right doesn’t necessarily mean doing right by the facts. An effective attack ad doesn’t require strict accuracy as long as its broad caricature rings true. It has to land a punch as propaganda, not journalism. For all his trigger-happy rhetoric, Goldwater was not in favor of starting World War III, whereas the theoretically peace-loving Johnson would prove, after reelection, to be an enthusiastic escalator of the disastrous war in Vietnam. But if the “Daisy” ad was not determinative in Johnson’s reelection victory and not a balanced depiction of Goldwater, it remains the gold standard of attack ads for good reason. Now that Obama is trying to fend off a GOP as radically right wing as Goldwater was, it’s a standard he will have to meet.

The Daisy Girl spot, which I greatly admire, did not caricature Goldwater or distort his record for one simple reason — the spot never once mentioned Goldwater’s name nor did it show his image. Say what you will about what Johnson’s ad men had in mind when they created the spot, they did not attack Goldwater. Any attack was supplied by the viewer, based on information he or she already possessed, based on Goldwater’s well-established record and his ample string of unfortunate and reckless statements about nuclear war and nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, Rich suggests there is much Obama and the creators of his TV ads could learn from studying the 1964 LBJ campaign.

That’s particularly the case given that the Romney forces are likely to have more money to spend on ads than Obama will, and that Romney has no inhibitions about dispensing with the truth in his own advertising. (His very first campaign spot, last November, misleadingly recut a 2008 campaign clip, Andrew Breitbart style, to attribute words from a McCain aide to Obama.) With limited resources and a bum economy on his shoulders, the Obama of 2012 may have to win the air war with an imaginative coup as dazzling as the Democrats pulled off in 1964.That’s why he would be wise to seriously reexamine the history of a spot so effective that it’s the only aspect of the entire LBJ-Goldwater race that anyone remembers. The latest volume of Robert Caro’s epic life of Lyndon Johnson stops just short of the 1964 election. But last fall, Robert Mann, a journalist and historian with a relevant previous career seeped in the cauldron of Louisiana politics, got there first with Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds, an enterprising book meticulously reconstructing the genesis and impact of this very brief, very devastating piece of film. Mann’s account is all the more instructive when read in the context of 2012. Paradoxically, the most famous attack ad in history stands apart from many of those that followed it—including most produced today—by containing no facts or even factoids, no quotes, no argument, no image of either candidate, and not even a mention of the target’s name. And yet its power remains awesome to behold. It finished Goldwater even though Americans in 1964 tilted slightly more conservative than liberal (37 to 35 percent, according to Gallup) and even though the Goldwater campaign outspent LBJ’s on television advertising by some 40 percent, including for an attack ad of its own linking the president to graft, “swindle,” juvenile delinquency, crime, and riots. . . .

No doubt all of these themes, and more, will play their role, and should. Not a few of them overlap those considered by the LBJ campaign in going after Goldwater. But the undimmed legacy of the “Daisy” ad should be factored into the calculus. Emotion must trump information and ideological point-making in a powerful attack ad—one that has enough shock value to cut through the 24/7 election-year electronic clutter of the 21st century.

Rich is a bit more free-wheeling in his approach to negative campaigning. I believe that accuracy and truth is not only good politics, it’s ethical politics. And we could use more of that.

But it’s a very good and thought-provoking piece and I recommend it to you.

And I’d be interested to know what you think about negative advertising, its impact on American democracy and whether it’s appropriate or wise for Obama’s advisers to spend time studying a campaign ad that aired almost 50 years ago.

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