16 August 2012
One of the dirtiest
There is nothing new in negative political ads in the US. People often refer back to a famous television spot put together by Lyndon B Johnson's campaign in 1964 called 'Daisy'. It showed a two-year-old girl picking flowers and suddenly an ominous voice starts a missile launch countdown, there is a flash and a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion.
It was a response to Johnson’s opponent Barry Goldwater suggesting nuclear weapons could be used in Vietnam. It aired only once but was credited with helping Johnson to a landslide win.
Yet negative ads go back almost to the beginning of political campaigning in the republic. In 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams issued handbills which called Andrew Jackson's mother a prostitute and accused his wife of committing adultery. The first negative radio ad aired in 1936, and of course there was the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988, in which Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was accused of giving weekend parole passes to killers and one of them, while released, killed again. It had a huge impact and helped George HW Bush to win.
Now Mitt Romney is airing an ad which claims Barack Obama has gone too far with his attacks. Called 'America Deserves Better', it criticises a controversial TV ad from Obama supporting the Political Action Committee which claimed that a man called Joe Soptic lost his wife to cancer after Romney's old firm, Bain Capital, shut down the factory where he worked, taking away his health insurance. The ad is deeply cynical. It fails to mention that Romney was not working at Bain when the plant was closed. It also fails to mention that, even though Scoptic lost his health insurance, his wife remained covered through her own job and it was five years after the plant was closed that she was diagnosed with cancer.
Even by American political standards, the ad is dirty and ruthless and has attracted widespread criticism. The Obama campaign has not condemned the ad or asked for it to be pulled. But it's hardly surprising. The president and his senior advisors are from Chicago, hardly known for its gentle and polite political discourse. Remember, this was a campaign which ploughed into Hillary Clinton during the primaries and suggested that her husband was a racist. Romney's argument is that the US deserves better from its president.
Yet for Mitt Romney to complain is almost as staggering. Romney has courted the support of Donald Trump who has been at the forefront of the campaign suggesting that Obama was not born in the USA and by extension is not qualified to be president. Others in his party have tried to suggest that Obama is a closet Muslim, while congresswoman Michelle Bachmann alleged that one of Hillary Clinton's top aides was a secret Muslim Brotherhood agent, and he has not disavowed either idea.
Mitt Romney and his supporters also spent millions by first smearing Newt Gingrich and then Rick Santorum during the primary campaign, sending both into paroxysms of rage and envy, because they couldn't afford to match his attacks. Romney himself has sought to distort Obama's linguistic mis-step, claiming he said that people did not build their businesses when Obama was clearly referring to important infrastructure which supported them.
Despite the high-minded ideals which both sides always proclaim at the start of a campaign, this has become one of the dirtiest in American history. Neither party can claim the moral high ground or whine at the tactics of the other side.
And what is sad is negative campaigning sticks. Research in the Journal of Advertising found that while negative advertising makes people want to physically turn away, the mind remembers the negative messages.
Both sides are ready to set aside their principles to win. The voters are the losers.
Alan Fisher is an Al Jazeera correspondent