Barack Obama has made his mistakes as a politician and as a president, but here is one thing he indisputably did right: pummel Mitt Romney with a volley of attack ads once Romney sewed up the Republican nomination. 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. What was everyone so shocked about? As far back as August 2011, Obama’s political hit men were signaling the inevitable to Politico: The president, “resigned to running for reelection in a glum nation,” had little choice “but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.” The Bain ad that Obama ran last month was no surprise either: It followed the template of those used by Ted Kennedy against Romney in the Massachusetts Senate race of 1994. (The ads helped: Kennedy won by seventeen points.) If anything, Obama’s variation on the theme is less nasty than Newt Gingrich’s Bain-bashing ad during the GOP primaries. Nonetheless, the bipartisan civility police swooped down in full force to cry foul, with Cory Booker’s charge that attack ads are “nauseating” typifying the moralistic tone. “What ever happened to hope and change?” asked Bob Schieffer of CBS News. He apparently forgot that even the sainted Obama hope-and-change campaign of 2008 spent heavily on negative ads—more than the McCain campaign did. (Does no one recall the exquisite “Seven,” in which the old hero was presented as a doddering doofus unable to name the number of houses he owned?) David Brooks lamented that Obama’s negativity was “self-destructive” and left him “looking conventional.” Peggy Noonan gloated: “The president opened his campaign with a full-fledged assault on his opponent. This is a bad sign in an incumbent!”
Try selling that wisdom to George W. Bush, an incumbent who started assaulting John Kerry with attack ads as early as March in 2004 rather than reprise his “compassionate conservative” campaign of 2000 (much of it in reality a dispassionate disemboweling of Al Gore). Or to Bill Clinton, who started twisting the shiv in Bob Dole in April 1996, never for a second worrying whether a sorrowful Sunday-morning talk-show pastor might ask, “What ever happened to the Man From Hope?” Those two incumbents both won, as it happened.
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.
All polite political society, regardless of party, deplores the negative ads that soon proliferated in the television age, as do voters in poll after poll. (Americans vocally abhor porn, too, even as they ravenously consume it.) “Negative advertising is the crack cocaine of politics” is the much-repeated maxim of the former Democratic senator Tom Daschle. In the aftermath of Booker’s admonishment of Obama, Ed Rendell, the pugnacious former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, claimed with a straight face that “if you’re in this business, none of us like negative ads.” Attack ads do “little to further beneficial debate and healthy political dialogue,” according to McCain, whose 2008 campaign outdid the Democrats in its percentage of negative ads, if not in quantity. (Remember “Celebrity,” his spot likening Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears?) Even Lee Atwater, the George H.W. Bush political Svengali who inspired the racist Willie Horton ad, among other attacks swamping Michael Dukakis in 1988, wrote a 1991 deathbed mea culpa apologizing for the “naked cruelty” of that campaign. No less a patron saint of the liberal media Establishment than Ben Bradlee would in retrospect condemn LBJ’s “Daisy” spot as “a fucking outrage.”
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.”
Crunching the data, Geer discovers that the 1988 Dukakis-Bush campaign, widely regarded as the nadir of modern American political mudslinging, was not notably more negative than those before or after, and that, contrary to public perception and Atwater’s apology, Dukakis ran more negative ads than Bush did. “The advertising in 1988, despite all the claims, did not usher in a new era of American politics,” Geer writes. “It was the news media’s coverage that brought about a new era.” By his Nexis reckoning, there was a fourfold increase in the number of articles on campaign negativity in the Times and Washington Post from 1984 (8) to 1988 (32). It was in 1988 that a national magazine (Newsweek) first ran a cover story on negative political ads, and it was also that year that a candidate (Dukakis) first ran an attack ad attacking attack ads. Dukakis’s innovation remains in vogue today. Hardly had Obama’s Bain ad made its debut last month when Karl Rove’s super-PAC, American Crossroads, ran an attack ad attacking Obama for making attack ads (complete with the useful, repurposed sound bites from Booker and Schieffer)—no mean stunt coming from the man who benefited from the Swift Boating of Kerry only eight years ago.
Geer’s research also indicates that attack ads are in every way bipartisan: Democrats and Republicans have deployed them in roughly equal measure (as have election winners and losers). They are always accompanied by positive spots. Even the most famous hit jobs—Willie Horton, Dukakis in a tank, “Daisy”—did not determine the outcome of elections so much as cement their drift. Bush 41 didn’t start running his negative ads until September 1988, which was after polling found him overtaking Dukakis. LBJ was well ahead of Goldwater from the get-go but went for broke because he wanted a mandate by landslide (which he got) to complete the New Deal (which, under the Great Society rubric, he largely did).
Unlike those notorious examples, most attack ads are soon forgotten. Some fizzle, some backfire. In our churning media sphere, where swing states become ceaseless free-fire zones of negativity for weeks and months on end, they can drown each other out. So far, the 2012 election cycle has produced none for the ages. The most provocative may have been Gingrich’s 28-minute “King of Bain” attack on Romney, startling not so much because of its quality or its message but because no one expected a conservative Republican to slam another conservative Republican from the left. Its modest impact was to help propel Newt to a temporary comeback in the South Carolina primary. A more inspired Romney attack ad would reverse Newt’s surge soon after in Florida: Unadorned by voice-over or fancy sound effects or graphics, it simply reran 25 seconds of Tom Brokaw’s 1997 evening-news account of Gingrich’s ethics violations. Brokaw and NBC lawyers demanded it be pulled, which only increased its viral impact.
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.
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.
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.
The “Daisy” ad’s scenario would seem to be simplistic. An innocent little girl (actually a 3-year-old budding commercial actress who’d already done a Lipton-soup print ad) in a field full of chirping birds picks petals from a daisy (actually a dandelion), counting them as she does so. Her babyish voice is soon usurped by the bark of a man on a loudspeaker counting down to an atomic-bomb explosion. The girl’s face is stilled in close-up by a freeze-frame, and the camera zooms in to her eye. As her pupil fills the screen, it is obliterated by a jump cut to the billowing mushroom cloud. Only in the final seconds do we hear (the unseen) Johnson’s brief pitch, which begins with the declaration “These are the stakes” and ends with the sentiment “We must either love each other or we must die.”
That last sentence, no doubt unbeknownst to most of its audience, echoed W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Mann discovered that the freeze-frame of the girl’s face was inspired by the legendary final shot of Antoine Doinel, the crushingly vulnerable 12-year-old autobiographical hero in François Truffaut’s New Wave masterpiece The 400 Blows (1959). It’s not much of a leap to imagine that the militaristic voice of the man reciting the countdown and the footage of the atomic blast were patterned after another film landmark, Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was still fresh in American memory, having been released early in 1964.
For a low blow, the “Daisy” ad corralled a goodly smorgasbord of gestures drawn from high art. That artistry was to the point—the point being not to make a rational case to voters but to use cinema to arouse their emotions, notably sheer, abject fear. To accomplish that mission, the LBJ political team violated the tenets of television political advertising of their time. Back then, ads were discursive and informational, with presidential candidates, even the telegenic Kennedy of 1960, awkwardly delivering their positions in hokey staged conversations or giving dry speeches worthy of the Politburo. Ad people were seen mainly as audiovisual technicians needed only to package the unadorned content. But JFK had toyed with breaking the mold by recruiting a sophisticated, creative ad agency for his reelection campaign—specifically, Doyle Dane Bernbach, whose cheeky “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen in 1959 had upended Madison Avenue orthodoxy. (Don Draper is seen pondering the unexpected wit of a DDB Volkswagen ad in season one of Mad Men.) Kennedy’s hunch survived his assassination. Bill Bernbach got the assignment for the new president’s reelection campaign, overseeing a media team that would include the groundbreaking sound guru Tony Schwartz.
“Daisy” went up on September 7, 1964, at 9:50 p.m. in the East, during NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies. That night’s movie was a relic even then—David and Bathsheba, a 1951 potboiler starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But go figure: 50 million Americans desperate for back-to-school diversion and with minimal entertainment options had tuned in. That was enough. The spot made all three network newscasts the next night, and then the cover of Time. The Johnson campaign never had to shell out a dime for a rerun.
The Washington response was reminiscent of the reaction to Obama’s Bain attack. Dean Burch, the Republican Party chairman, condemned the ad as “a new low in American politics” and, prefiguring Cory Booker by nearly five decades, added that he knew of a child who watched it and got “so violently upset that she cried and had nausea all night.” The Johnson people had anticipated the flak. “The spot was a winner,” Richard Goodwin later recalled. “But it would almost certainly be attacked as ‘unfair,’ even ‘dirty politics’ by Establishment pundits and publications.” LBJ and his operatives didn’t give a damn. They anticipated the howls and had a strategy for deflecting them. Once “Daisy” had done its damage, the Johnson campaign would respond to the protests by seizing the moral high ground and magnanimously withdrawing it. As Mann writes, “Goodwin imagined the conversation he or another staff member might have with a reporter: ‘It seems fine to us, but if that’s how you feel about it, Mr. Reston [or Mr. Sulzberger … or Mr. Bradlee], we won’t use it anymore.’ ”
That’s one lesson Obama could learn from 1964: Shamelessly flatter Booker and Brooks and every other holier-than-thou critic who thinks politics should emulate the tone of a PBS public-affairs roundtable, and then do what you want anyway. Another lesson is in the ad’s reach for a bigger-than-life theme that could be rendered symbolically, even poetically, and function, as Tony Schwartz would later write, “like Rorschach patterns” that “do not tell the viewer anything” but “surface his feelings.” The Johnson team had a number of promising lines of attack to work with in going after Goldwater: his opposition to civil-rights legislation, his desire to make Social Security “voluntary,” his fellow-traveling with John Birchers and other loons of the far right. But the campaign settled on Goldwater’s sloppy bluster about nuclear weapons because the prospect of an atomic Armageddon transcended ideological or policy differences and cut to the emotional quick of the electorate’s existential fears.
The content dictated the bold form. Goldwater’s propensity for flip rhetorical bellicosity was so well known that any replay of his actual words in the ad would be a gratuitous distraction and could be dispensed with. Better still, from the Democrats’ point of view, it was Goldwater’s own vanquished GOP rivals for the nomination—Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton—who had led the way in publicizing his loose talk and portraying him as a risky warmonger. (The then-governor of Michigan, George Romney, was another helpful Goldwater basher.) The Republicans had done such a good job of advance hatchet work that voters taking in David and Bathsheba could let their own imaginations run wild while filling in the ad’s blanks. As any student of horror movies knows, what isn’t seen or stated is far scarier than any literal enactment onscreen. It’s hard for a Hitchcock fan to look at “Daisy” and not see it as a cinematic stepchild of Psycho (1960), in which the brutal shower scene is all the more terrifying because the audience never actually sees the knife violate Janet Leigh’s body.
In the weeks before “Daisy” aired, Bernbach’s own fear was that Goldwater would preempt any ads his agency devised by successfully camouflaging himself as a moderate during the campaign. In a panicky mid-August letter to the Johnson aide Bill Moyers, he wrote: “It is already apparent that Barry Goldwater is making every effort to adjust his extreme position to one more acceptable. Knowing the short memory of the average person, it is entirely possible he might succeed in creating a new character for himself if we are unable to remind people of the truth about this man.”
This is precisely the challenge the Obama campaign faces right now.
Mitt Romney’s résumé is a preposterously target-rich environment for attack ads. Though the shelf life of the two big items mined by the Obama campaign thus far—his lackluster record as Massachusetts governor along with his career at Bain—will soon expire, there’s no shortage of additional fodder. The Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe previewed one battle plan to John Heilemann of New York recently. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe said. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”
That’s one way to go. There’s also the flip-flopping Mr. Etch A Sketch. There’s Romney’s countless tone-deaf attempts to feel the pain of the 99 percent. (My favorite, delivered to a group of jobless workers, remains “I’m also unemployed.”) There’s his risible, if dogged, effort to deny that his Massachusetts health-care law was the precursor of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. There’s his antediluvian, Goldwater-style truculence in foreign policy, including his unreconstructed Cold War–era conviction that Russia is America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” There’s “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” There’s the money stashed in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. There’s his endorsement of the Paul Ryan budget, which would mutilate the social safety net, including benefits for seniors. There’s his endorsement of Arizona immigration policy as a national “model” and his call for illegal immigrants to submit to “self-deportation.” There is, most of all, the radical party he is attempting to mask with a moderate image—the GOP that Thomas Mann (of the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (of the American Enterprise Institute) have characterized (in their new book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks) as “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
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.
It also remains a good idea to recycle attacks already made by those who know the candidate best: the critics in his own political party. In Romney’s case there are many, reflecting the anyone-but-Mitt hostilities of the primaries. But the most brutal Romney takedown will require a fear factor, and for that, there may be no better inspiration than the likes of Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld who is best known for his defense of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and for his tireless efforts to portray Obama as soft on terrorism. In April, Thiessen wrote a little-noticed column for the Washington Post op-ed page headlined “Mitt’s Bent for Secrecy.” What had aroused his concern as a GOP loyalist was Romney’s stealth announcement, at 5 p.m. on a Friday, that he was delaying the filing of his 2011 tax returns. Thiessen worried that Romney’s continued ducking of questions about taxes was playing into the Democratic trope that Romney has something to hide. The serial evasiveness, he argued, could provide “a clever way for Obama to exploit some Americans’ discomfort” with Romney’s “secretive” Mormon faith “without ever raising the issue directly.” Mitt’s secrecy “could cost Republicans the election,” Thiessen wrote.
None of this is wrong, though Romney’s “secretive” faith looms larger than it should precisely because he keeps it secretive. He bristles when asked questions about the Church of Latter Day Saints’ controversial record on secular issues (like civil rights), and he refuses to let voters in on his own substantial career as a Mormon bishop and stake president. In a political culture where all candidates, and especially Republican candidates, advertise their own religious activities, Romney’s reticence is all the more conspicuous. But the overall scope of Mitt as Mystery Man is bigger than Thiessen indicated, or perhaps wanted to spell out. He did not mention, for instance, Romney’s strange departure from the Massachusetts governorship at the end of his term. Romney’s aides not only scrubbed all e-mails from a computer server in his office but also purchased and removed the hard drives from seventeen state-owned staff computers. This month, The Wall Street Journal uncovered a small cache of e-mails that had survived. They revealed that Romney was a gung ho defender of his health-care bill’s individual mandate, the single feature most vilified by foes of “Obamacare” now. What other secrets lurked on those hard drives?
Romney’s delay in releasing this year’s tax return, so bothersome to Thiessen, is in fact a relatively trivial instance of his aversion to financial disclosure. Romney still refuses to release the 23 years of tax returns he made available to the McCain campaign when it was vetting him for vice-president in 2008. (What did the McCain campaign see that made Sarah Palin a more desirable alternative?) Though the Romney campaign has disclosed the name of major campaign-contribution bundlers who are lobbyists—as required by law—it has not voluntarily identified its bundlers who are not lobbyists. Nor have Romney’s financial-disclosure forms identified the underlying assets of his 48 accounts from Bain Capital. The couple that have seeped out in public records despite his stonewalling include a company that has outsourced jobs to China.
None of this is illegal. Nor is it illegal to keep many of your policy plans secret—which is the case with Romney’s immigration policy, his tax plan, his stand on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the names of the government agencies he has promised to eliminate. The campaign’s strategy when asked about these matters is to refer questioners to its website, which is stuffed with weightless platitudes that are the verbal equivalent of Styrofoam pellets (a 59-point economic plan, for instance). That Romney is “a man without an ideological core” (in the words of another conservative critic, John Podhoretz) only adds to his weightlessness. That he so strenuously avoids talking about the state he governed and the religion that has informed him since childhood makes him seem stateless and rootless—a Man From Nowhere, or perhaps a Twilight Zone. Does anyone know whether Romney spends most of his time in Massachusetts—or New Hampshire—or La Jolla—or in other clandestine spreads as yet unidentified?
Whatever else Americans may want in a president in scary times, whether in the nuclear anxiety of 1964 or the economic anxiety of 2012, they prefer a known quantity and, at a minimum, a leader they find human, whatever their political differences. Despite the right’s impressive efforts to portray Barack Obama as an alien from another planet (or at least continent) over the past four years, people now know who the guy in the White House is, for better and worse. Romney is still a stranger, a blank, an enigma to his fellow citizens. No less a GOP partisan than William Kristol acknowledged as much this month when he mused, “I worry that the default will be for the devil you know over the devil you don’t.” Like Thiessen, Kristol knows there is much here for a present-day Bill Bernbach to work with.
But, as Bernbach fretted about Goldwater in 1964, Romney could yet succeed in “creating a new character for himself” before the Democrats create a frightening one for him. The task for the Obama campaign, 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.