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May 24, 2012 11:48 AM How Super-PACs Will Keep the Campaign Clean

By Jonathan Alter

Strangely enough, the 2012 presidential campaign, expected to be the dirtiest in modern memory, may end up being relatively clean.

That’s because both sides agree that the economy is the central issue and that sideshows like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright aren’t persuasive for voters. Karl Rove and Larry McCarthy, the creator of the infamous Willie Horton ad, think harsh personal attacks against President Barack Obama will backfire, and they’re offering more subtle messages of economic disappointment instead.

Even economic assaults can boomerang nowadays. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, an otherwise strong Obama supporter, dealt the Obama campaign a blow last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he said he was “nauseated” by an Obama ad lambasting Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital LLC. The president’s defense of the ad, in which he said “there are folks who do good work” in private equity, was too complicated to be effective.

The controversy surrounding the Bain ad and a proposed Wright ad from a super-PAC backed by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., suggests that when “paid media” in the presidential race ventures out-of- bounds, “free media” will exact a penalty. (House and Senate races are another story.)

Avoiding the Gutter

We can still expect a misleading and overwhelmingly negative campaign, but the distortions and outright lies will be mostly about the candidates’ records and positions, not their race, religion and standing as patriotic Americans. I don’t mean to be pollyannaish, but that represents a step up from the gutter.

The days when Lyndon Johnson could use the infamous “daisy ad” to suggest Barry Goldwater wanted to blow up the world, or Vice President George H.W. Bush (and Al Gore before him) could exploit the racist Willie Horton story against Michael Dukakis, are over. In 2004, when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could easily smear John Kerry’s character by distorting his Navy service during the Vietnam War, you couldn’t yet use YouTube and blogs to rebut an ad and even organize a boycott of the sponsors within hours. If the Swift Boat attacks aired today, President George W. Bush would probably be forced to denounce them.

This sounds counterintuitive. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the campaign system is awash in super- PACs and shadowy 501(c)(4)s (dubbed “spooky-PACs” by Stephen Colbert) that allow secret donations. Instead of clearly identifying the origin of the ad (“I’m Mitt Romney, and I approve this message”), the tag lines on the super-PAC ads are from gauzy-sounding outfits (“Restore Our Future”) that few people recognize. When it’s not clear who the attacker is, the old rule in politics that attack ads hurt the attacker as well as the target is rendered obsolete.

As we learned during the Republican presidential primaries, this has changed the tone of the campaign. About 70 percent of the ads in the presidential campaign from January 1, 2011, to April 22, 2012, contained at least some negative content, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which, not coincidentally, found that more than half of Romney’s ads were funded by super-PACs. Obama will have plenty of money for his own negative ads, but he will be responsible for most of them (“I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message”). Romney, meanwhile, can at least theoretically avoid accountability.

Keeping Clean

But neither candidate can afford to let his backers wander too far off the reservation. When Ricketts considered running a super-PAC ad featuring Obama’s relationship with his former pastor Wright, known for his controversial views, the proposed commercial (aimed at stripping the president of his stature as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln”) leaked to the New York Times. The fallout may cost the Ricketts family trust, which owns the Chicago Cubs, as much as $150 million, which is real money even for a billionaire. That’s the amount the team was seeking from the City of Chicago to help fund the renovation of Wrigley Field. A furious Mayor Rahm Emanuel wouldn’t even return phone calls from the Ricketts family, and the Wrigley Field deal is probably dead.

Aside from the hypocrisy of free-market conservatives seeking taxpayer money for their sports businesses (routine across the country), the Ricketts story sends a powerful message to other billionaires trying to play in the presidential election sandbox: Expect sand in your eyes.

The best way to avoid it — and stay on good terms with the Romney campaign (which sees anything racial or personal about the president as counterproductive) — is to go with approved (though technically not “coordinated”) super-PACs and spooky- PACs like those run by Rove and a group of Romney’s former top aides. That’s what Texas plutocrats like Harold Simmons and Robert Perry, original Swift Boaters, are doing this year.

Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which so far this election cycle have raised more than $100 million, will probably have at least a couple hundred million to use trashing Obama — often unfairly. But most of it will be spent on depicting the president as incompetent on the economy, not on personal attacks.

So the Ricketts episode, while harmful to Romney in the short run, helps him down the road by giving billionaires incentive to stay on the same page as the campaign.

The near-universal condemnation of the proposed Wright ad also increases the likelihood that any comments about Romney’s Mormon faith will be seen as off-limits.

I’ve long argued that when you’re talking about the most powerful job in the world, all biographical facts — relationships with old pastors, management of companies, religious practices, even old girlfriends — are at least potentially relevant. But this year, with the country facing a stark choice in hard times, they will be derided as distractions from an unusually substantive campaign.

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Jonathan Alter , a columnist for Bloomberg View, is the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." He is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.
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Comments

  • Danny Vinson on May 24, 2012 2:41 PM:

    if you truly believe the superpacs will produce anything that is not negative you must live in a state with medical marijuana and have an ope-ended prescription

  • Mitch on May 25, 2012 11:31 AM:

    It seems to me that your definitions of "clean" and "dirty" aren't the same as mine.

    You seem to define "dirty" soley as personal attacks. I define it as taking advantage of and lying to the population, paid for by hidden figures with no accountability. People can talk about issues, and still be playing dirty. Campaigns can avoid personal attacks, and still be full of scumbags who have no problem stating falsehoods in order to acheive their goals.

    There's more to dirty politics than Swift Boats, Willie Horton and Rev. Wright. There are also lies about the issues—such as calling Obama a Big Spender, when he has presided over far less spending than any of his recent predecessors. And I'll wager your paycheck versus mine that we will see more than a few Super-PAC financed ads with that type of dirtiness. Indeed, that kind of dirtiness is all that the GOP has left.

    There is nothing clean about Super-PACS. There is nothing clean about the GOP. Period.

  • smartalek on May 25, 2012 12:34 PM:

    I guess it would be too much to expect the President to twist the blade a bit, and word his closer as, "I'm PRESIDENT Barack Obama, and I approve this message," huh?
    (And even if I'm wrong on that, I'm sure, "I'm The PREZ, bitches, and [etc]," would be out of the question.)
    Anyone know if the exact wording of the closing tag is fixed, either by statute or just by convention?
    I can't help but recall how it wigged out the wingers (even more than usual, I mean) when Chief Justice Roberts (now THERE'S a tasty oxymoron for you) flubbed Obama's oath-of-office... twice. It's always fun to mess with their little minds (or whatever passes for same).

  • smartalek on May 25, 2012 12:40 PM:

    And yes, what Mitch said, absolutely.

  • liam foote on May 26, 2012 12:23 PM:

    I agree with those who indicate that the sleaze and slime emanating from the Rove-Koch attack machine and from others such as Harold Simmons and Robert Perry is abhorrent, even if not stooping to attacks on Rev. Wright or William Ayers, plus the nonsensical birthers and other ad hominem attacks.

    The relentless spewing of half-truths, spin, distortion and outright lies by these groups, coordinated closely with Fax News, is just as disgusting as attacks on a candidate's race or religion.

    Yes, the Dems now have a couple of SuperPACs to try to level the playing field, but they tend to provide facts and videos to make their point, and Mr. Romney gives them more than they need. Rove and Fox, on the other hand, simply make things up, take statements and events out of context and feel comfortable in their own reality, hoping that voters will fall for at least some of it.

    Since journalistic integrity and ethics are obviously a thing of the past on the right, might such blatant transgressions be addressed as libel instead?

  • SadOldVet on May 26, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Even by Jonathan Alter standards, this posting is unusually full of sh!t.

    Substantive campaign???

    RMoney and RMoney campaign and RMoney surrogates lie after lie after lie is going to be a clean campaign.

    What a load of 'Inside the Beltway' crock!

  • Steve on May 26, 2012 10:54 PM:

    I don't know why people always decry the "daisy" ad as inappropriate. Nuclear weapons are not a toy and can indeed destroy all of human civilization in a matter of minutes. Any politician who doesn't take their use seriously, for example, like Barry Goldwater saying lower ranked officers should be able to use them tactically, should be called out on it in the harshest terms. We are a very foolish sentient species to keep a loaded gun always pointed at our head and we should be extremely careful.

    So yes, if there is a serious concern about a politician, it should be pointed out, even if doing so is a bit rude.

  • PQuincy on May 27, 2012 8:50 PM:

    I'm inclined to agree that Mr. Alter should get out of Washington a little more. The diet of unremitting lies -- spread across the spectrum from candidate Romney's fact-free attacks on the President for allegedly to the lowest birther and other personal slime emanating from captive media (anyone notice the latest supermarket tabloid junk lately) -- do not suggest that this will be a 'clean' campaign in any meaningful sense of the word.

  • Paulo on May 27, 2012 9:28 PM:

    Wait - Al Gore exploited the "racist Willie Horton story against Michael
    Dukakis"? Did you even read the link that you are providing to support
    this assertion?

    Who needs Hannity when we have Alter...

  • DisgustedWithItAll on June 04, 2012 7:07 PM:

    Hard to find something stupider than this.

  • Stephen on June 08, 2012 10:04 PM:

    Please don't forget that when repeated over and over, lies start to be perceived as truth.