Total War?

… Political Total War, not total war in Iraq, that is. Let’s look at the facts:

  • While the degree of the bounce is contentious, Bush got a real bounce in August (see also, here).
  • The month of August, between the Swift Boat BS and the convention (Bush’s speech aside) was extremely negative, and conducted with little regard for truth. Expect more of the same.
  • Voters’ high-minded claims notwithstanding, negative attacks work. Witness the just-completed Republican Senate primary in Florida, which pitted the very conservative Bill McCollum against the previously somewhat conservative Mel Martinez. The winner would move on to compete against Betty Castor for the Senate slot opened by Bob Graham’s impending retirement. Let’s watch:

    … a political storm is roiling Florida’s U.S. Senate race, fueled by hard-hitting accusations that Republican nominee Mel R. Martinez leveled against his chief rival in the closing days of this past Tuesday’s GOP primary.

    The attacks infuriated some prominent Republicans, and Democrats hope the discord will help their nominee, Betty Castor, win the closely watched contest to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D).

    President Bush handpicked Martinez … considered more centrist than early GOP front-runner Bill McCollum. McCollum, a solidly conservative former House member, lost the 2000 Senate race to Democrat Bill Nelson, and many Republicans felt they needed a more moderate nominee this year.

    But Martinez’s campaign was hardly moderate in its homestretch assault on McCollum. First, it arranged a conference call by conservative religious leaders who challenged McCollum’s integrity because of his support of embryonic stem cell research and a hate crimes bill. Enraged, former Republican senator Connie Mack wrote to more than 15,000 state GOP activists, saying Martinez’s campaign “sunk to a new low in Florida politics” by launching a “mean-spirited, desperate and personal attack” that would “only hurt our party and doom us in November.”

    A few days later, the Martinez campaign labeled McCollum “the new darling of the extreme homosexuals” because he had supported including protections for gays in a failed federal hate-crimes bill. Editorial pages condemned the comment, and the St. Petersburg Times withdrew its endorsement of Martinez.

    Did it work? Yes:

    Martinez, who had trailed in several polls, won the primary with 45 percent of the vote to McCollum’s 31 percent. Martinez and his allies in the GOP establishment immediately tried to heal the hurts.

    That’s right, by going negative, Martinez went from behind in the polls to defeating McCollum by a 3:2 margin.

    How negative was this successful campaign? McCollum won’t even endorse his former rival:

    “I intend to reach out to [McCollum] in a way that will erase the problems that have existed,” Martinez said the day after the election. “I’ll do right by Bill; he’s a good man.”

    … An unplacated McCollum, however, refused to endorse Martinez, at least until they meet sometime this week.

So let’s suppose that full-on attacks are very effective, as recent (and distant) evidence strongly suggests. Moreover, supporting documentation is not even required. Given these conditions, what would total political war against Bush look like? Here’s a start:

  • A commercial juxtaposing the President reading from My Pet Goat with the towers burning. Voiceover: “While America was under attack, here’s what your president was doing.” End with headlines describing the President spending 9/11 hiding out in air bases and locations other than DC. For good measure, add that “Osama bin Laden remains at large.”
  • A commercial about Bush’s failure to serve. Start with this quote from The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 25, 1990:

    “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.”

    Then cut to Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett alleging that he witnessed Bush’s National Guard records being scrubbed, and point out that Bush has never accounted for his whereabouts during 1972 and 1973, nor why he stopped flying. Then end with Linda Allison:

    Before there was Karl Rove, Lee Atwater or even James Baker, the Bush family’s political guru was a gregarious newspaper owner and campaign consultant from Midland, Texas, named Jimmy Allison. In the spring of 1972, George H.W. Bush phoned his friend and asked a favor: Could Allison find a place on the Senate campaign he was managing in Alabama for his troublesome eldest son, the 25-year-old George W. Bush?

    “The impression I had was that Georgie was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble and embarrassing the family, and they just really wanted to get him out of Houston and under Jimmy’s wing,” Allison’s widow, Linda, told me. “And Jimmy said, ‘Sure.’ He was so loyal.”

    … Asked if she’d ever seen Bush in a uniform, Allison said: “Good lord, no. I had no idea that the National Guard was involved in his life in any way.”

  • And as long as unfounded and unsupported attacks are fair game, don’t forget the Bush Abortion story. There’s no evidence, but hey, the Swift Boat Veterans not only lack evidence, their story contradicts all available documentary evidence! And don’t forget Clinton’s love-child!
  • And don’t forget that Bush won’t say when he stopped using cocaine. Sure, this is nearly on the level of “When did you stop beating your wife?”, but that’s where this campaign is heading. Perhaps more accurately, that’s where the Bush side of this campaign already is. This would surely be less egregious than Falwell and Robertson pushing the Clinton Chronicles video, complete with tales of Clinton running a drug ring out of the Mena, Arkansas airport.
  • I’m not sure whether it would resonate, but there’s also fodder in the fairly well-documented story of Bush’s string of business failures, complete with bailouts by friends of his father, throughout the 1980s.
  • Bring back Henry and Louise to talk about eating dog food after their Medicare premiums increase 17%. (Since this is true, documented, and contemporary, it may not even count as negative.)
  • And I’m sure I’m missing some; this is just a quick look at what a negative campaign would look like.

Who would pay for and run these ads? Certainly not the Kerry campaign. And, except in very mild versions, not the DNC. Probably not even MoveOn, which spin notwithstanding, is not even remotely in Swift Boat Veterans territory in terms of extremism or detachment from the truth. No, Democrats will need some truly Shadowy groups, brand new 527s that spring up, launch ads and push polls in key states, and then fade away. I’m not sure who would pay for them, but there is an ever-growing number of angry Democrats out there, so the money is surely out there.

Am I really advocating this? Not yet; this is something I really don’t want to see. But as soon as any of this stuff shows up in the big media outlets, Rush and Hannity, TV or radio ads, or in push polls, I’ll change my mind. And I think it’s much more likely than not that I will change my mind; an issues-based campaign simply does not work in Bush’s favor. Median income is somewhere between down and flat, jobs are down, the 1000th US death in Iraq will likely sweep the news between now and the election, Medicare premiums are going up, seniors don’t like the prescription drug benefit, the deficit is sky high, Osama remains at large, and so on …

I suppose there’s some hope that inter-campaign collusion could stave this off. Something along the lines of “We’ll run ads (indirectly, of course) on X if, and only if, you guys run ads on Y”, where X might be ads based on distorting Kerry’s Winter Soldier testimony and Y might be ads based on Bush’s missing year. Of course, this assumes that the campaigns are able to direct, or at least veto, third party ads by their supporters, which I believe they can.

Another problem with an arrangement like this is that if one candidate is clearly behind in the polls, he has little to lose from breaking the covenant. Similarly, if the race is close, then each side will have an incentive to break the agreement just before the election. Anticipating this, neither side will expect it to hold, so there’s little reason to abide by such an agreement in the first place. (It’s basically a repeated Prisoners’ Dilemma with a finite and known time horizon.)


ADDENDUM: As he often does, Digby puts my state of mind into words rather nicely:

I reluctantly concluded that the only effective response was probably to engage in the same kind of smear and hope it becomes a zero sum game. And, in the process, we would be forced to drive our politics further and further into a fetid sewer. I find the prospect of that deeply depressing which is what distinguishes me from a Republican. They do not have that emotional reaction. Indeed, they are energized by the prospect. It’s a problem.

Still, the stakes are so high that we have no choice but to try to win today by any means necessary and begin the hard work of repairing our politics — and honestly, our culture — after we have wrested power from those who have brought us to this place.