There's an element to American political campaigns which everyone hates and almost everyone loves to denounce: the negative campaign advertisement. From now until November, many will fulminate against the "coarsening" of our political culture these ads supposedly usher in, and many will call for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (and all the candidates further down the ballot) to renounce negative campaign advertising -- to absolutely no avail. The mudslinging will continue apace right up until Election Day, for one very simple reason: such ads work. They are effective. Which means -- especially for those living in "battleground" states -- that the only way to avoid the onslaught of political negativity will be to stop watching television altogether, until the election is safely over.
Negative campaigning has been around much longer than even the medium of television, it bears mentioning. Slinging mud at political opponents stretches back to (at the very least) Andrew Jackson's time. It is not, as many myopic political pundits (or even "journalists") would have you believe, some sort of modern invention. Political ads nowadays aren't even particularly more personal or more brutal than what took place back in the 1820s, for that matter. Most of them are quite a bit tamer, in fact.
During his first successful campaign for president, Andrew Jackson's wife was accused of bigamy for marrying him. Jackson himself was painted as a bloodthirsty "military chieftain" who was known for murdering his subordinates, and (in his spare time) fighting "pistols at dawn" duels with private citizens. The Jackson folks countered (falsely) with a story of how John Quincy Adams had "pimped" out "an American virgin" to the Czar, while Adams was America's ambassador to Russia. Can anything said so far (or likely to be said before November) in the current election compare, on the "coarsening of American politics" scale? And this is but one brief example from the history of presidential campaigning -- you really don't have to look very far to find others which are equally as bad. Scathing and scurrilous campaign mud has been routinely slung for roughly two centuries in America, whether anyone in today's media remembers these facts or not.
This won't stop the Washington media echo chamber from all agreeing that 2012 is "the most negative campaign ever" -- which is the flip side to that other chattering-class bromide: "this is the most important presidential campaign of our lifetime," which will also surely be trotted out for the public's consumption. The fact that neither is true, along with the fact that this is exactly what was said four years ago, will never be mentioned at all in what passes for conventional-wisdom political commentary.
The only thing which will be new is the organizational aspects of the mudslinging. Even this won't be all that radically changed, but instead merely more obvious in the post-Citizens United country we now live in.
The newly-defined "super PAC" structure is this year's big change, of course. But this is really just a new bottle containing some very old wine (or, perhaps, "whine"). Presidential candidates will be using these super PACs to do their dirty work in the "air wars" of negative campaigning, as we've already seen happen in the Republican primary contest. This, again, is a new twist on a very old theme -- the candidate's supporters and friends have usually been the ones who play the role of attack dog on the campaign trail, because the candidates themselves much prefer to remain "above the fray" of such unseemly behavior. In the 1800s, it was partisan newspaper editors who took on this task, whereas today it is super PACs set up and run by the candidates' buddies. The only real difference is in the Byzantine IRS regulations which much be adhered to in modern times.
At the core of this convenient setup is "deniability" for the candidate. While surrogates are out there telling the public that the opposition hates puppies, motherhood, and apple pie, the candidates themselves can somewhat-plausibly state "I had nothing to do with that ad, and I've never said anything like that myself."
According to the IRS, there is supposed to be a complete wall of separation between the candidate (and his official campaign) and any of these "outside groups." The official campaign is forbidden from coordinating anything with the super PACs, and any communication between the two is likewise verboten. This actually works to the candidates' advantage, though, because it strengthens their deniability factor.
Mitt Romney has actually already played this card, during the primary season. Challenged during a debate on one of his super PAC ads, Romney (quite correctly) noted that he was barred by law from telling the super PAC what to do -- up to and including calling on them to take any specific ad down. Romney pointed out that he could end up in jail if he attempted to do so.
Well, maybe technically -- but in real life, probably not. Our federal elections watchdog is a pretty toothless beast, which is not exactly known for its fearsome bark (much less for its pathetic bite). How many national politicians have ever wound up in jail for breaking elections laws, after all? Not very many. At the worst, candidates may be fined -- long after the election is over and the results are in -- and that's the end of it.
Romney's statement, however, points out a strange loophole in the law. While "coordination" quite obviously bars the candidate (or anyone in their official campaign) from picking up a telephone and dialing up their friendly super PAC to tell them to take a specific ad down, at the same time the law does not forbid public statements from the candidate (which are protected under their First Amendment right of free speech). So candidates have taken to, perhaps during a press conference, saying things like: "I had nothing to do with that anti-puppy, anti-Mom, anti-apple-pie ad, and I don't think it should be up on the airwaves."
Nothing illegal about that, and the super PAC successfully gets its marching orders, as clear as if an actual phone call had been made. But since there is technically no private communication between the candidate and the super PAC, no laws have been broken. The candidate is merely expressing his personal opinion, after all.
By doing so, he also strengthens his deniability stance. He can point to the IRS regulations, and say that the super PAC didn't communicate with his campaign, and therefore he can't be held responsible for anything they do. While at the same time, of course, he benefits from the ad's impact on the public. The nastier the ad, ironically, the more free press it will get -- as the ad itself becomes that day's "story" in the media.
The only real difference in 2012 may be the sheer amount of money being spent on the outside groups. Citizens United has opened the floodgates for such money to pour into these "unofficial" campaign organizations, and they will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars before we all head off to the polls in November.
But the negativity itself isn't really anything new. The deniability has been somewhat strengthened, but this too is not a new stance for candidates to take. There will be lots and lots of handwringing by many well-intentioned people who decry the coarseness of modern American campaign tactics, the influence of corporate money, and all the rest of it. But while they may have a point about the magnitude of cash flowing into negative ads this time around, and while they may indeed have a point about the insidiousness of corporate money in American political campaigns, the nastiness itself is really nothing new. Neither, for that matter, is the deniability. This game has been played by American politicians for a very long time, in fact.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant