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. (AMTD), 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.)
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.
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.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)