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?