Attack Dog

By Mayer, Jane | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Attack Dog


Mayer, Jane, The New Yorker


Mitt Romney, in his struggle to wrap up the 2012 Republican nomination for the Presidency, has presented himself as an outsider. During an exchange with Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, at a recent Republican debate, Romney declared that "to get this country out of the mess it's in" Americans need leaders "from outside Washington, outside K Street." One television ad by Romney supporters makes the same argument against Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, calling him "the ultimate Washington insider" while showing his face in front of an image of the Capitol dome.

Romney, unlike the remaining Republican candidates, has served no time in Washington. Yet he's relying on a media offensive managed by operatives who have long been at the heart of Washington's Republican attack machine. One of the leaders of this advertising war is Larry McCarthy, a veteran media consultant best known for creating the racially charged "Willie Horton ad," which, in 1988, helped sink Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for President.

McCarthy, who is fifty-nine, helps direct the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future, one of the hundreds of new Super PACs--technically independent political-action committees set up by supporters of the candidates--that are dramatically reshaping the Presidential election. PACs have existed since the nineteen-forties, but for decades an individual donation was limited to five thousand dollars. The power of PACs increased exponentially in 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals could spend without limit--and pool their money in PACs--to influence elections, as long as they didn't fund candidates directly. Super PACs have already injected fifty-six million dollars into the 2012 race, most of it going to negative advertising. Restore Our Future has spent seventeen million dollars--more than any other PAC--and fifteen million of that has gone to producing and airing ads made by McCarthy's firm, McCarthy Hennings Media. By contrast, Romney's official campaign has spent only eleven million on ads. The Super PAC is technically fighting a proxy battle on behalf of Romney, but in practice it has become the head warrior.

The television spot calling Santorum an insider was created not in Boston, where Romney's campaign is based, but in Washington, in a corporate office building, with a marble-floored lobby, just two blocks from the K Street corridor that Romney disparaged in his exchange with Gingrich. McCarthy has an office on the second floor. With its unpretentious decor, it could be mistaken for a doctor's waiting room, but McCarthy's mission is signalled by a framed print on the wall that depicts a look-alike of President George W. Bush tearfully proclaiming, "I can't help it--I'm such a compassionate conservative!"

McCarthy is known for his ability to distill a complicated subject into a simple, potent, and usually negative symbol. In Florida, Restore Our Future spent $8.7 million on ads, most of which targeted Gingrich, hastening the end of his brief front-runner status in the state. It was a replay of Iowa, where, the previous month, Restore Our Future had helped crush Gingrich's lead by spending three million dollars on negative ads. The theme of the ads, which were made by McCarthy's firm, was Gingrich's "baggage." The cleverest spot employed a visual gag of battered suitcases, plastered with Gingrich bumper stickers, tumbling down an airport luggage carrousel. One by one, the bags popped open. A green suitcase exploded with loose dollar bills--ostensibly ill-gotten gains from his work as a consultant to Freddie Mac. Another disgorged a video of Gingrich looking chummy with Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who is particularly disliked by conservatives. A female narrator, sounding like a stern mom, listed so many transgressions by Gingrich that the ad became a blur of disqualifying scandal, summed up in the final attack line: "Newt Gingrich--too much baggage! …

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