Frank Rick of the long-format-journalism-reviving New York Magazine has a must-read piece that will no doubt provoke lots of pursed lips and tsk-tsking in Washington.
The thrust of Rich’s argument is that if President Obama wants to secure a second term, he needs to ignore the pleas of every “holier-than-thou critic who thinks politics should emulate the tone of a PBS public-affairs roundtable” and, instead, mimic the no-holds-barred example of LBJ’s “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater.
Rich’s justification is that a cash-rich Mitt Romney won’t hesitate to do the same, and with plausible deniability:
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.
Rich argues, too, that both parties behave like this in equal measure and that negative campaigning is as American as log cabins and cherry trees:
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.
I admire Rich’s candor. And I share his disdain for the preening Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s theatrical “nausea.” If the Democratic Party can’t permissibly raise skepticism about the notion of a Swiss bank account-holding private equity kingpin in the White House, what is the point of having a Democratic Party?
Still, there’s something rank about this business. I don’t mean the dodgy attack ads, which like the poor will always be with us; I mean Frank Rich’s embrace of them. Partisan tribalism, with its tolerance of behavior that would elicit howls of outrage if the other side were doing it, is one of the most dispiriting aspects of modern politics. I have a hunch liberals will hate the executive orders of a President Romney, and I’m pretty sure Frank Rich would not have even considered writing this piece in 2004 on behalf of the Swift Boaters.
The quality of governance in this country has taken a nosedive over the last couple of decades. This decline may not be directly attributable to negative advertising. But the my-team-right-or-wrong survival instinct that goes into crafting them — surely that’s one reason why our system is lumbered with so many crappy leaders.