Peggy Noonan’s beautiful Wall Street Journal weekend piece featured a fanciful negative tv spot against Abraham Lincoln, illustrating just how easy it is to compose “negs” out of thin air, and Newt Gingrich said Saturday that he felt negative ads were driving down GOP voter turnout. It’s tempting to sit back and enjoy some delicious schadenfreude as the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision bites some unintended asses; the Pubs always expected Mr. Monopoly’s unlimited resources to vomit all over the campaigns of Democrats, not each other’s. But with St. Ronald’s Eleventh Commandment left in tatters (as well as the rest of his initiatives: a candidate with Mr. Reagan’s record and attitude couldn’t be elected dogcatcher in today’s Republican Party, because the “base” wouldn’t even consider nominating him), what we’ve seen so far is only a taste of the torrent of slime that is to come.
New York, where we live, is rarely a “battleground.” We’re usually as blue as can be, and broadcast costs in our city, the nation’s largest media market, are beyond expensive. So we don’t normally undergo the tv tsunami found in “swing” or early-primary states, where, in the words of Stuart Stevens, the Romney adviser with whom I once worked long ago, broadcast spots are “a dollar a holler.” Friends of mine who are in such places, though, say this year is different: both the frequency and the nastiness have been turned up to 11. And this is just the Republicans going to work on each other: wait till the sewer spigot is turned on somebody they really, viscerally, hate. As Bill Maher pointed out last week, no President in memory, not even Dubya, has been treated so disrespectfully, from Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson to Jan (“Finger Pistol”) Brewer. What is it about Barack Obama that gets ‘em so riled up? Let’s see: what’s unique about him?
Negative messages have been around forever. They’ll never go away, because they work: they appeal to the baser parts of our natures, the ids that occasionally crawl up from the dank cellar inside. That cute little girl picking flowers made people worry about Barry Goldwater’s finger on the nuclear trigger, even though there was scant other reason (“bombing [the North Vietnamese] back to the Stone Age” was Curtis LeMay’s bon mot, not Sen. Goldwater’s). Just after John Kerry – an actual war hero opposing a draft dodger who went AWOL from Stateside service – was nominated in 2004, I remember reading this boast from an anonymous George W. Bush operative: “by the time we get through with him, you won’t be sure which side he fought for.” I chuckled to myself at the time. Then the Swift Boat deluge began.
You can utter a blatant lie in 30 seconds, but the victim can’t defend himself in that same moment: nuance takes much longer than :30. Case in point: Mitt Romney’s very first tv commercial of the present campaign, in which President Obama is pictured saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The commercial failed to note that the statement is from the 2008 campaign, and that then-Senator Obama was quoting a John McCain campaign aide. Not only didn’t the Romney camp apologize, they puffed out their chests and stood by the false insinuation: who cares if the statement is four years old and completely directed elsewhere, and that we omitted the words, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”?
Mind you, this was an “on-the-record” Romney spot, the kind in which the candidate says, “I approve this message.” What’s new in this presidential election cycle is the rise of “Super PACs,” made more powerful than ever by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that individuals, corporations, unions and the like can donate unlimited amounts to an advocacy organization, as long as this group “does not coordinate” with any candidate’s actual campaign. It takes but a moment’s reflection to apply this fig leaf to anything you want: for example, why not hire a former campaign manager to manage the Super PAC instead? No coordination is necessary, because the newly moneyed guy knows exactly what the candidate needs without being told. These Super PACs will be the source of most of 2012’s negative ads, because the candidate himself need not approve them or even appear in them. Super PACs will be the ones getting their hands dirty. They will be full-time Swift Boaters. And they will outspend the putative campaigns many times over.
The effect of the Supreme Court decision hasn’t been insidious; it’s been instantaneous. Through a Super PAC, one single wealthy donor has personally kept Newt Gingrich’s candidacy alive, even though it is woefully deficient in organization. Stung by a loss in South Carolina, Mitt Romney’s Super PAC unleashed a tornado of anti-Gingrich ads in Florida and cost the Speaker the primary, almost surely because of this effort. And I repeat, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: these are just firing-range practice rounds.
Some friends on the left say they’re disappointed in the President for reversing himself by encouraging donations to his own Super PAC after loudly criticizing the Citizens United decision (causing Justice Samuel Alito to mouth the words “not true” during the State of the Union address shortly after the ill-considered judgment was handed down). It offends their sense of honor and fairness. But to me, the President is simply acknowledging that you don’t bring knives to a gunfight. And while nobody should be proud of the kind of “support” they’ll be getting from Super PACs, Pubs of all people should understand about the relative merits of unilateral disarmament. The Kraken has already been released; without a similarly titanic response, nothing remains but destruction.
It all reminds me of an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, just before the election between President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. I was flying back from Seattle to New York, and my company’s policy was that if you took the red-eye back on a long trip, you could travel business class. After I managed a bit of fitful sleep, we stopped in Chicago, and a distinguished-looking gentleman slid past me into the window seat. He read a newspaper, then accepted breakfast service. I let him finish everything and hand over his tray before screwing together the courage to ask, “How does the election look to you, Senator?” For my seatmate was none other than George McGovern.
“Clinton in a squeaker,” replied the man who had been the Democratic candidate just as long ago at our meeting as that conversation is to me now. We had a delightful chat, mostly on lightweight subjects, but two things in particular absolutely startled me. He said that during the entire 1972 campaign – Richard Nixon, Watergate bugging, Hunter S. Thompson and all – “not once did a reporter ever ask me a question about my personal life.” Now, let’s step back. Sen. McGovern’s first choice for vice-president was Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who – unknown to the nominee – suffered from clinical depression, a condition that, along with his secrecy about it, forced him to withdraw from the ticket. So personal lives were definitely in play at the time. Yet read again what McGovern said. He faced a more generous press corps, a less toxic political climate. Even given Nixon’s acute paranoia and his dark power to indulge it, in most ways 1972 was a more innocent time.
And so McGovern acknowledged. I asked him, “If you had the chance, would you run for President today?” “No,” was the immediate answer. “I couldn’t put my family through what you have to today.” And please remember, this was only 1992. Now, I don’t care whether you agree with the Senator’s politics or not, but only the meanest-spirited Bircher could deny that he’s a good, principled man, the kind of guy you want in public service. If campaign sleaze disgusts the likes of George McGovern enough to keep him off the ballot, then what rough beasts will we continue to attract among those potential candidates who remain?
As we arrived at the gate, several people in the business cabin, who had all overheard McGovern’s distinctive voice, rose to greet him. Each one said they’d voted for him in ’72. “Wait a minute,” McGovern protested. “If everybody voted for me, why didn’t I win?” After they’d dispersed, the two of us continued to walk together toward the terminal. I told him the first Presidential vote I was able to cast, once I got old enough, was for him. The Senator stopped and shook my hand goodbye. “I’m glad I got your first vote. But I’m gladder it wasn’t your last.”