More Attack Ads, Please

By Begala, Paul | Newsweek, April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

More Attack Ads, Please


Begala, Paul, Newsweek


Byline: Paul Begala

In the basement of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington there is a framed picture of Harry Truman. Behind that picture there is one loose brick. Push the brick and a secret panel opens to a staircase. Descend three flights, guided only by the faint smell of gunpowder, and you will enter what is called nefastus nefastum--the unholy of unholies. In this dank and pitiless place, men and women who have not seen the sun in months hunch over computers, fueled by speed and cheap swing-state bourbon. Their mission: to master the dark art of negative advertising.

Or not. Truth is, negative advertising is not some evil or nefarious practice. In fact, when I contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008, I wrote on the check: "For Negative Ads Only." I love negative ads. When I see a positive ad, even one from a candidate I support, my reaction often ranges from bored to annoyed. But show me a negative ad--even one against a candidate I support--and my blood starts to race. What can I say? I'd much rather eat picante sauce than chocolate.

Some of our predilection for the negative may be due to evolutionary biology. Drew Westen, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University, notes that "when we were evolving, failing to pick up on negative cues could lead us to fail to escape or fight a predator." Positive cues, on the other hand, didn't "save us from danger in the same way." Then there's the fact that there are fewer forms of positive cues: "friendship, loyalty, romantic desire, and emotional attachment to kids, parents, and partners." Negative cues, by contrast, take a wide variety of forms: "distrust, contempt, anger, hate, fear, anxiety, sadness, pity. There are just many more ways to have negative feelings toward someone."

Negative From the Start: If we are negative by nature, we Americans are more human than most. The Founding Fathers loved going negative. Heck, the Declaration of Independence is one long negative ad. George Washington--although elected unanimously--was attacked for being too patrician and aloof, and for his support of the Jay Treaty with Britain. From there we were off to the races. Jefferson was scorched for fathering children with his slave Sally Hemings. Alexander Hamilton was called a womanizer. I'm sure the hand-wringers of our early days fretted. But the republic has endured nonetheless.

The 2012 election cycle is shaping up to be the most negative in history. Indeed, Mitt Romney won the Florida GOP primary by spending $15 million on TV ads (between his campaign and the super PACs supporting him). Kantar Media's CMAG group, which tracks campaign ad spending, reported that of all the ads run in Florida, 0.1 percent were positive Romney spots. That is to say, only one lonely ad was pro-Romney--and that was in a foreign language (Spanish).

Among the best so far is an anti-Gingrich spot made by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. Called "Baggage," the ad is simple, powerful, and very effective. It shows a series of weather-beaten suitcases coming off a baggage carousel. One is labeled "Freddie Mac"--money flies out of it as the announcer talks about Newt's deal with the mortgage giant. Another is labeled "Nancy Pelosi. Global Warming," and opens to show photos of the ad Gingrich did with the former House speaker. Still another bag is labeled "Reprimanded. Fined," while the announcer reminds us that Newt was the only speaker in history to be reprimanded by the House. The spot concludes with: "Newt Gingrich: Too Much Baggage." Most Republicans, not surprisingly, have drawn the same conclusion.

Since the campaigns are hellbent on scorched earth, let me provide some guidance from a fan of the genre.

Be Factual: The most important thing about a negative ad these days is that it must stand up to scrutiny. If the ad is dishonest, it'll come back to bite you. Case in point: in 2008, when John McCain gave an interview praising Wall Street deregulation and saying he'd like to do the same for health insurance, Barack Obama's campaign pounced.

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