He blamed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis on Carter’s weak leadership. In a January 28, 1980, speech at Georgetown University, for example, Kennedy asked if America could “risk four more years of uncertain policy and certain crisis—of an administration that tells us to rally around their failures—and an inconsistent nonpolicy that may confront us with a stark choice between retreat and war?”
Even tougher were Kennedy’s more-concise words from a primary speech that found their way into a very effective Ronald Reagan spot in the fall election: “I say it’s time to say: No more American hostages. No more high interest rates. No more high inflation, and no more Jimmy Carter.”
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s advertising team produced a spot, featuring many of the attacks against Republican nominee Barry Goldwater that had been made by Goldwater’s GOP primary opponents earlier that year, including Michigan Gov. George Romney.
It’s a common practice in politics — discrediting an opponent in spots by using the attacks of his or her former primary competitors. Those spots may have more credibility with voters. They are saying, in effect, don’t take my word that my opponent is misguided or craven; listen to what his friends said about him just a few months ago.
One interesting aspect of the current presidential race, however, is the relative absence of such spots by Barack Obama, using the words of Mitt Romney’s Republican primary opponents.
That’s certainly not because there’s any absence of great material.
There’s Newt Gingrich, who said of Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital: “Those of us who believe in free markets and those of us who believe that in fact the whole goal of investment is entrepreneurship and job creation, we find it pretty hard to justify rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company, leaving behind 1,700 families without a job.”
Even harsher was Gingrich’s commentary on Romney’s attacks on the former House speaker: “To have his campaign take on a lifetime of work and lie about it, frankly I do find infuriating. I think it is one of the most dishonest things I’ve seen in politics. It is so fundamentally abusive.”
There’s also Rick Santorum in Wisconsin in March commenting on Romney as a messenger for the repeal of Obama’s health care reforms: “Pick any other Republican in the country. He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.”
Or consider a Santorum speech in Illinois, also in March, on Romney’s business experience: “I heard Governor Romney here called me an economic lightweight because I wasn’t a Wall Street financier like he was. Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the president of the United States, do you think that’s the kind of experience that we need? Someone who’s going to take and look after as he did his friends on Wall Street and bail them out at the expense of main street America?”
Or Santorum in February in Tennessee: “He glosses over and doesn’t even tell the truth. . . . Here is a guy who is the ultimate flip-flopper running for president, and he’s attacking me for not being principled? That doesn’t wash.”
Then there’s Rick Perry, who attacked Romney in an October 2011 primary debate for hiring illegal aliens to work on his property: “And Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year.”
And finally, there’s Perry’s famous assault on Romney as a “vulture capitalist.”
So, why aren’t we seeing Obama ads that feature these attacks? I posed this question to my Honors College class at Louisiana State University. We came up with a few ideas.
Santorum, Perry and Gingrich are likely not viewed as credible and respected leaders by many swing voters. Romney struggled to beat the weakest Republican field in a generation. Gingrich and Perry, in particular, discredited themselves to such an extent in the primaries that it’s difficult to see how any independent or swing voter in Ohio would find their critique of Romney persuasive in the least.
Furthermore, Obama’s campaign did such a good job of portraying Romney as a vulture capitalist in early advertising in swing states that the image has proved incredibly resilient. It may be one reason Obama’s numbers in places like Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – while diminished somewhat since the first debate – have not collapsed. I believe it’s also the reason that you no longer hear Romney touting his Bain Capital resume: that portion of his career is now a net negative for him.
On health care, there’s no need to air a spot using Santorum’s words. It’s already widely accepted that Romney is, indeed, one of the last people who can offer an effective critique of health care reform.
Because primary campaigns are fought among candidates of the same party and who generally agree on the major issues, these campaigns often turn nasty and personal. In the case of this year’s Republican primary, voters witnessed the candidates’ mad and unseemly dash to the far right in pursuit of Iowa GOP caucus participants. Voters may generally discount policy differences between these candidates as manufactured and strained.
But there’s another genre of attack ad that Obama and Romney have both employed in this race, albeit sparingly, that has proved very effective in previous campaigns: using a candidate’s own words against him, either to highlight something embarrassing or damning or to prove that he’s changed his positions.
In the case of Romney’s now-famous private insults directed at the “47 percent,” the Obama campaign produced a very effective spot using Romney’s damning words.
And Romney’s campaign has used Obama’s words, “you didn’t build that,” in a spot to suggest that Obama was an enemy of small business entrepreneurship.
In 2008, Obama aired this spot, “Fundamentals,” using John McCain’s unfortunate words about the economy.
In Obama’s case, there’s another type of potential ad employing Romney’s words — demonstrating how he has shifted positions on abortion, taxes, gay rights, withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, etc. – which would also seem to provide rich fodder. You can see a very good collection of these ads from earlier presidential campaigns at this link.
If Obama wanted to paint Romney as a craven politician who will say anything to get elected, imagine what he could do with this video.
But we’re not seeing that kind of ad in this campaign, at least not yet.
The reason may be that Obama, on the advice of former President Bill Clinton, has chosen to attack Romney as a “severe conservative” and not a shape-shifter. That’s the subject of this interesting story in today’s New York Times.
In any event, using the words of your opponent – or those of his same-party opponents — against him or her can be very effective.
To this day, as this 2010 story in the New York Times demonstrates, Jimmy Carter has not forgotten the damage Kennedy’s words, in a Reagan spot, did to his re-election hopes.
- How Bill Clinton May Have Hurt the Obama Campaign (thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Jane Devin: The Tapes Don’t Lie: What Republicans Have Said About Romney (huffingtonpost.com)
- Obama challenges press to find flip-flops — and they do… (buzzfeed.com)
- Gingrich: Romney Flip-Flopped on Taxes (drudge.com)