Mud studies: What do negative TV ads tell us about the men who would be president? Character Sketch

Walter Shapiro
The Ticket

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

When Johnny Mercer wrote those lyrics in the depths of the Depression, it is safe to assume that he knew nothing about politics. These days, accentuate the positive won't get you elected sixth-grade hall monitor. Small wonder that in the bloodbath Florida primary, accentuate the negative was about the only thing that united Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. This campaign's most revealing political statistic was 92 percent--that was the share of political ads in Florida that went for the jugular. Romney, the runaway Florida victor, did not run a single positive TV commercial in English.

This is not the place for a heartfelt, if ineffectual, lament about the morals of modern campaigning. The sad truth is that a fusillade of attack ads could morph Meryl Streep into a tongue-tied failed actress. Going negative the firstest with the mostest works. As Romney proved in Florida, the low road is the time-tested route to becoming the candidate crowing about "a great victory" on primary night.

But do negative ads tell us anything worth knowing about the fitness of candidates (both the attacker and the attackee) to be president?

Richard Nixon aside, it is hard to detect a direct connection between campaign tactics and style of governing. George H.W. Bush in 1988 ran one of the most sharp-elbowed White House races in modern times (remember Willie Horton?), but he was a bipartisan conciliator as president. So I am inclined to give Romney and Gingrich a pass for the character of their Florida campaigns--unless there is evidence that either candidate instructed his media consultant: "Tell lots of lies. The more vicious, the better. The voters won't notice.")

What about the ads themselves? From time to time, "Character Sketch" will examine campaign commercials based on their relevance to the White House. This will not be a Fact Checker subjecting campaign claims to a Truth-O-Meter, because news organizations are already doing a laudable job on setting the record straight.

The standard will be simple and, yes, subjective: What does this nugget tell us about governing the nation in 2013? A TV commercial that wins a top score for relevance (example: the 2008 Hillary Clinton red phone ad) will be awarded four Oval Offices. A bogus claim or a complete irrelevancy (bragging about loving America as if the other candidates are visitors from the Planet Krypton) will get the lowest score: the sidewalk outside the White House grounds.

Let's apply this Oval Office standard to the onslaught of negativism that Republican voters were subjected to in Florida by scrutinizing the four political ads that logged the most broadcast time:

Mitt Romney's "History Lesson": In the closing days of the Florida campaign, the Romney campaign transported Tom Brokaw back to the NBC anchor desk. Over well-justified protests from Brokaw and NBC News, the Romney campaign ran an excerpt from a January 1997 news broadcast highlighting Gingrich's reprimand for ethics violations, and the $300,000 fine his colleagues levied against the House speaker.

Relevance: Throughout his career in Congress, Gingrich continually got chalk dust on his trousers from brushing against (and, yes, crossing) the line governing House ethics. About all that can be said in Gingrich's defense is that successful presidents like Lyndon Johnson (example: Lady Bird Johnson's questionable acquisition of lucrative Texas broadcast licenses) were not always paragons of selfless financial sacrifice in public office. But now that Gingrich is wealthy enough to qualify for a six-digit credit line at Tiffany (Romney, in contrast, could easily pay cash), it seems unlikely that as president he would still be blurring the line between governing and Newt Inc. For all his ethical tribulations, Gingrich has never used the power of the federal government to harass his political foes (see: Nixon, Richard) or accepted cash in white envelopes (see: Agnew, Spiro).

Rating: Two-and-a-half Oval Offices.

Newt Gingrich's "Trust": As long as the Republican primaries last, Romney will continue to come under fire from conservatives for his centrist record as governor of Massachusetts. This Gingrich spot lambasted Romney for increasing state "fees and taxes by $700 million" during his four years in office. While the statistics are accurate, the TV commercial (surprise) ignored the context as described by Romney biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman: "The budget was in meltdown." Romney's political reinvention as a staunch conservative prompts the tagline in the ad, "If Romney would mislead us on all this, can we trust him on anything else?"

Relevance: For all of Romney's non-stop boasting about knowing "what it's like to start a business," his four years as governor are the best evidence we possess for imagining him as president. But despite Romney's mixed record in Massachusetts, it is nearly impossible to imagine any 21st century Republican president raising taxes like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did. A President Romney--taking office with lingering right-wing skepticism--would continually worry about a conservative 2016 primary challenge on the model of Pat Buchanan in 1992. Whatever Romney's core beliefs (and it may require a team of political spelunkers to find them), he would be hamstrung as president by the promises he made to get the Republican nomination.

Rating: Two Ovals.

Restore Our Future's "Reagan": This commercial, sponsored by the free-spending pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, mocked Gingrich for his panting eagerness to link himself with the last universally popular Republican president. As the voiceover put it, "From debates, you would think that Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan's vice president." The TV spot noted that for all Gingrich's claims of kinship, he was mentioned only once in Reagan's diaries. It is a fair criticism, especially since Gingrich gets equally scant billing in Lou Cannon's definitive biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.

Relevance: Even though Gingrich was a congressional backbencher throughout Reagan's presidency and his boasts about helping orchestrate the 1980 victory are (to choose a word at random) grandiose, he does have substantive grounds for claiming to be a political heir. As Cannon points out, "More than half of the proposals in the Contract [with America] were taken verbatim from Reagan's 1985 State of the Union address." When it comes to steadfast Reaganism, Gingrich certainly tops Romney, who changed his party registration to Republican five years after Reagan left the White House. But for all the efforts of Republican contenders to get right with the Gipper (and Rick Santorum is no slouch in this department), the contemporary relevance of Reagan and his Cold War convictions fade with each passing campaign.

Rating: One Oval.

Winning Our Future's "Best Friends": If Gingrich's personal failings bequeath a target-rich environment to opposition researchers, the same can be said about Romney's ideological meanderings in Massachusetts politics. It has been surprising that Romney has more often been slammed for his record at Bain Capital than for putting his signature on the Massachusetts health care law. Perhaps too little too late, this commercial by the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future (political consultants probably work overtime dreaming up impenetrable and interchangeable names for SuperPACs) depicted Romney as an Obama clone on health care. The spot even accused Romney of inventing "government-run health care," conveniently forgetting that a fellow named Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare nearly a half-century ago. The most politically devastating clip in the commercial showed Romney during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign saying, "I'm not a partisan Republican. I'm someone who's moderate. My views are progressive."

Relevance: If Romney is the Republican nominee, by November we will have seen enough weathervane attack ads to stock a New England antique store. Beginning around 2005 when Romney first began thinking about the presidency, his ideological reinvention resembles more a company retooling its ad strategy than a candidate shedding a few awkward political positions. But the current Romney boasts pretty much the same political persona as he did in 2008, aside from less visible pandering to social conservatives. It is certainly conceivable that the moderate governor of Massachusetts, rather than the conservative frontrunner for the Republican nomination, was the convenient political fiction.

Rating: Three Ovals.

Rick Santorum's "Deal": Santorum was AWOL from the Florida airwaves in large measure because he did not want to squander his limited financial resources on a winner-take-all primary that he had no chance to win. But the former Pennsylvania senator is no stranger to saloon-brawl politics, as this anti-Gingrich commercial designed for the upcoming Nevada and Colorado caucuses proves. Using a setup suitable for three-card Monte, the Santorum spot asks ominously which three politicians are on the other side of the hidden cards. The ad then offers heavy-handed clues: all three supported cap-and-trade legislation, health care mandates and Wall Street bailouts. When the face cards are turned over, they show Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and (whap!) Newt Gingrich. The tagline is, "Rick Santorum: He doesn't just talk a good conservative game, he lives it."

Relevance: The truth is that each of the remaining Republican candidates (except Ron Paul) have regularly deviated from ideologically pure conservative positions when it suited their self-interest. That is how politics works, unless you set out, like Paul, to be a gadfly protest candidate. Santorum, for example, opposed conservative right-to-work legislation while in the Senate and backed his moderate colleague Arlen Specter (who later became a Democrat) in a 2004 primary against Pat Toomey. What is telling about the ad is that the target is Gingrich (battling with Santorum for the title of Conservative Challenger) rather than Romney.

Rating: Two Ovals.

Since Johnny Mercer won't work, we need a song to symbolize the tenor of the down-and-dirty Republican primary race. The winner comes courtesy of the 1950s British comic duo of Flanders and Swann. Their ode to the courting rituals of the hippopotamus is perfect, especially the chorus, "Mud, mud, glorious mud. There's nothing quite like it for cooling the blood." Or arousing an apathetic Republican voter.

Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.

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