Those who prize civility over frank talk or success in politics may be disheartened to learn that attack ads of the type President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have begun to fling at each other are as old as the republic itself, and as New York magazine columnist Frank Rich says, they’re absolutely essential for effective politics.
Contrary to polished appearances, campaigning never was a gentleman’s game. Lyndon Johnson knew this when he launched the “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964 and went on to win the presidency with a landslide majority. With “Hope and Change” thoroughly discredited in the eyes of much of the liberal public, Rich says Obama will have to fight just as dirty if he hopes to keep his post at the nation’s helm for four more years.
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.