It’s hard to determine what kind of stunt Mike Huckabee was trying to pull when he unveiled his proposed negative ad against Mitt Romney for the assembled media on Monday. He did so not, of course, before he oh-so-magnanimously explained to the assembled press that he was above negative campaign tactics and had pulled the proposed ad from Iowa TV stations.
Was this dissembling a disingenuous tactic proposed by Huckabee’s occasionally shifty campaign manager Ed Rollins? Or was it the Baptist preacher evincing a sincere desire to not be pushed into running a dirty campaign? The media was certainly credulous about the stunt, though I think Mike Huckabee’s motivations are almost beside the point.
But the end result is that Huckabee has made his surprising Iowa victory a referendum on negative campaigning. Some great galloping fool, masquerading as a pundit or campaign operative, will try and spin the results of the caucuses by saying Iowans responded to his integrity, as demonstrated by his refusal to get into the political sewer.
Of course, that narrative is hardly compelling; we all know Huckabee’s halo is pretty rusty given the ethical complaints surrounding his tenure as governor of Arkansas. (He won’t go negative — but he will accept over $100,000 in gifts as sitting governor!)
However, someone at Monday’s bizarre presser ought to have gone to the heart of the matter, and asked Mike Huckabee what, exactly, is wrong with negative ads.
As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with them. And yet, the stigma is so bad that the Romney campaign has insisted on referring to their Huckabee attacks as “contrast ads.” That’s a fairly cowardly description. Make no mistake, the impetus of the ads that Romney has been running recently in Iowa is to tear Huckabee down rather than build Romney up. The better euphemism would be that they are “voter education ads.” However off-putting the aesthetics of such ads are — with their unflattering black and white photos and dissonant piano chords — negative campaign ads are just about the only occasion voters are offered any real facts or substantive information about a candidate.
Perhaps negative ads were a more disreputable tactic decades ago when media was tightly controlled and the ability to fight back was limited by how loose the purse strings were. One of the more famous bits of political folklore stems from an incident where Lyndon Johnson started a rumor that one of his political opponents — who happened to be a farmer — was having, uh, intimate porcine relations. When confronted with the obvious fact that this was not true, he allegedly said, “I know, but I’d like to see the [bleep] deny it.”
Now, however, 24-hour news cycles and the Internet mean that unfair attacks are unlikely to dominate the news for long. If you hope to follow the Johnson model in today’s media environment, good luck. If Johnson had pulled such a stunt in 21st-century America, it would suck up all the oxygen in the election. Within minutes he’d find himself on CNN discussing for the record whether he was the source of the rumor with the words “PIG SEX?” in 72-point type below his floating head the entire time. It’s just not worth the risk.
Instead, one now has to be very careful about the accusations made in negative ads. Consequently, negative ads are more likely to prompt substantive debate over the merits of candidates’ actual records. For instance, one of Mitt Romney’s recent ads in Iowa attacked Huckabee’s record on government spending. Curiously, this is also an area where Romney might be perceived as having a mixed record. Romney claims to have cut the state budget significantly in Massachusetts — but that assertion is highly debatable, and some argue he might have actually overseen an increase of several billion dollars in state spending. The New York Times hit Romney hard for overstating the growth in the Arkansas state budget during Huckabee’s governorship by not using inflation-adjusted figures in his ad. However, even when you factor in the Times’s figures they still show that Huckabee presided over a 50-percent increase in the state budget. Exaggerated numbers or not, Romney’s basic charge was accurate.
To be fair, both were governors of states with overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures so keeping spending in line would have been difficult for either of them. But without delving into the numbers and offering an opinion over whose record on restraining government spending was better, if Romney’s initial attack got the media to report on the two Iowa frontrunners’ relative records and spurred a debate among any segment of the public about the broader issue of government growth, then we’re all better for it.
However, somewhere along the line, the media and the electorate at large have become comfortable with the idea that people interviewing for the toughest job in the world should not be judged in relative terms. Instead, elections have become rather like pageants — candidates are allowed to make their case individually, but are not permitted by the rules of etiquette to go after one another. It’s as if they think they can sashay down the catwalk, hoping that guest judge Erik Estrada is impressed enough by the interview segment in which they rattled off their five-point plan to partition Iraq and share oil revenues, to overcome the lackluster score from their trumpet rendition of the theme from Star Wars in the talent competition. That last bit may seem like a joke, but Huckabee showed up on Leno the night before the Iowa caucuses playing his bass with The Tonight Show band. Bootsy he is not, but it was still a shrewd move. Remember when Bill Clinton went on Arsenio and played saxophone and George W. Bush started speaking Spanish on the campaign trail? The media astonishment was comparable to coming home and discovering the family dog was in the middle of weatherproofing the deck.
The coarseness of American culture, manifested by even its cable news programs, is a topic of substantial commentary. Yet somehow the media has also accepted as axiomatic, the idea that negative ads somehow are offensive to the electorate at large, and especially the genteel Midwestern dispositions of Iowa voters.
If Huckabee won because Iowans are easily off-put by Romney’s negativity, we really need to do something about the primary schedule such that we aren’t stuck with Hawkeyes’ delicate sensibilities determining the leader of the free world in every election. Perhaps the national parties could be convinced with the right ad campaign: “Iowa … wrong on corn subsidies… wrong on winter weather… wrong on the Byzantine electoral selection process… WRONG FOR AMERICA!”
But obviously, Iowans — and others — can handle the truth that comes with negative ads. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so darn effective and politicians wouldn’t use them. That’s why, like clockwork, we turn on the TV every November and find ourselves staring at grainy photos of some schmuck in a suit angrily pointing his finger at us while randomly selected pejorative adjectives from local newspapers dissolve slowly on and off the screen.
More than anything, we say we want politicians to be honest. And yet, we make them smile through their teeth and pretend to like the other guy every election. Let them be honest about why they don’t like the other guy and we might get better leaders. But before we can demand honest politicians, perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves — about the fact we like and need negative campaign ads.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.