This, of course, is how Fox News has served as a virtual propaganda arm of the Republican Party, giving Karl Rove, the strategic captain behind super-PAC American Crossroads, a paid role to telegraph the super-PAC’s posture toward Obama. In The Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch organ, Rove writes columns directing the troops in precisely the arguments to make.
In recent years, presidential campaigns have increasingly focused on performing “self-oppo,” creating a negative dossier on their own candidate to prepare for potential attacks and blunt the impact when they come up. Lehane tells the story of finding a potentially deadly item alleging that the Clintons had used the White House for fund-raising purposes in 1997. To kill it off, Lehane purposefully leaked it to “a very conservative news outlet” in hopes of making it radioactive for the mainstream press, who would view it as a partisan hatchet job. “It slipped below the surface, never to be seen or heard from again,” he recalls.
But that was fifteen years ago, and defending oneself in the current media age can be fruitless. With the advent of amateur political agents on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, the hits come at a blinding pace, all day, every day, and seem to inch further and further below the belt. Truth is, nobody seems to know where below the belt even is, or care.
“Now, because of the pressure of social media, it renders verdicts almost instantaneously, and it’s pressed mainstream media to render verdicts almost instantaneously,” says Bob Shrum, John Kerry’s chief strategist in 2004.
And if a candidate doesn’t go negative, he’s liable to be inundated by his opponent’s attacks—and unable to make a positive case. “A good hit buys you a little bit of room,” says Devorah Adler, “and that’s really all you need.”
The Washington consultants, of course, are happy to oblige with the hits. Making negative ads and buying television airtime are, after all, how they get paid. Political image-makers like Stuart Stevens and Jim Margolis are an insular fraternity who gain cachet from high-stakes campaigns and then parlay their influence into lucrative corporate accounts when the election is over. The same faces reappear year after year. The man who helped produce the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988? Larry McCarthy, who created the anti-Gingrich ads in Iowa for the pro-Romney super-PAC.
Here then is the presidential-election-industrial complex, an industry made up of for-hire mercenaries whose loyalties shift from cycle to cycle. “We’re not in the ‘cause’ business,” says Fred Davis, a veteran Republican ad-maker who until recently was working for a pro–Jon Huntsman PAC. “There was a long time when Stuart Stevens wasn’t big on Romney. You’re in love with whoever’s paying you.”
Even political distinctions like Republican and Democrat can seem like mere trade associations. Lehane, a friend of Republican Steve Schmidt’s from California political circles, arranged a cameo for Schmidt in Knife Fight, a forthcoming movie about political consultants that Lehane co-wrote, starring Rob Lowe. Jason Meath, who directed the anti-Romney documentary about Bain, worked for Stevens and Schriefer for eight years, including on Romney’s 2008 campaign.
A spokesman for the pro-Gingrich super-PAC told me Meath wasn’t driven by any “vendettas or revenge” to make the anti-Romney film. That leaves as alternative motives political conviction and money. Care to wager $10,000 on which one it is?
Sure, the old pros worry what the all-out-negative campaigning is doing to their business. As Schmidt points out, citing Thomas Friedman’s most recent best seller, The World Is Flat, “McDonald’s never attacked Burger King negatively. It may work for a little while, but at the end of the day what you’re doing is attacking hamburgers. You have the attacks going on so long that they’ve just totally run the system into the ground.” Then again, he says, “I’m not sure it’s productive, in the mood we’re in right now, to relay positive information, certainly if you’re Obama.”
It’s all the other guy’s fault.
“I’m really worried about what this portends for the future, in terms of all this outside, unaccounted-for, secret money,” says Margolis. “Today, one billionaire oilman can overwhelm the system, and while the president may be able to compete, the broader political system is in jeopardy.”
But pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. This is about the future of America!
Oh, who are we kidding? These guys are licking their chops. “It’s going to be crazy,” says a veteran Republican operative, considering the money and the madness of it all, a sly grin spreading across his face, “but wonderful.”