Is the summer of 2004 repeating itself? Quite possibly.
Let’s take a brief trip back in time. President George W. Bush is running for reelection, and he’s vulnerable for a variety of economic and policy reasons. His approval ratings are below 50 percent — red-alarm territory for a sitting president. Voters seem ready for a change, if the Democrats can offer a plausible alternative, and the race is neck and neck.
Then, in the first week of August, an organization not formally connected to the Bush campaign, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” launches an ad that draws extensive media coverage and creates a firestorm of controversy. Two weeks later, the organization begins airing another ad. By late August, Bush is pulling ahead of John Kerry and establishing a small but durable lead. He maintains the lead throughout September and October, winning the popular vote in November by a spread of about 2.5 points.
That bit of history is captured in this chart from Real Clear Politics, which shows early to mid-August as the decisive turning point in the 2004 race. The Swift Boat ads weren’t the only factor. The party conventions certainly played a role. Democrats held their convention in late July, and the GOP had its convention in late August. The conventions bring the presidential race into the public consciousness like nothing else, so it makes sense that one candidate began pulling away in the month separating them.
Still, the ads were a devastating blow to the Kerry campaign. The most notorious ad showed several veterans who claimed to have served with Kerry in Vietnam questioning his character and courage. One says that Kerry is “lying about his record.” Another says, “When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.” Two more say that Kerry “betrayed” other veterans, and another says he “dishonored” the U.S.
The facts hardly mattered. It didn’t matter, for example, that the veterans who served with Kerry weren’t actually on his boat during the firefight that was the subject of their comments. Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery during that battle. The Swift Boat veterans claimed that he hadn’t actually been under fire. But the man Kerry saved that day, by pulling him out of the water, later wrote that he was being shot at from both banks of the river, and that “John, already wounded by the explosion that threw me off his boat, came out onto the bow, exposing himself to the fire directed at us from the jungle, and pulled me aboard.”
The Swift Boat ads are legendary for their chutzpah. Supposedly, they attacked Kerry’s greatest strength — his war service and his courage. But in truth, the ads resonated because they attacked Kerry’s greatest vulnerability. He already had a reputation for fecklessness and flip-flopping, and the Swift Boat ads challenged his honor, all but daring him to stand up and defend himself. And Kerry failed to meet that challenge. The ads probably didn’t persuade many voters to doubt his war service, but the lack of a strong response did confirm the perception that he lacked a political spine. Bush, who was all spine but no smarts, benefited from the contrast. Kerry never recovered.
We’re now in the midst of another tight presidential race, and another devastating ad by an independent group has been rolled out in early August, causing a furor. This one is aimed at Mitt Romney, and it features a former steelworker, Joe Soptic, who claims that his wife died of cancer because Romney’s Bain Capital bought the company he worked for and closed the plant he worked in, causing Soptic to lose his job and his family to lose its health insurance. His wife didn’t say anything or get treatment, Soptic says, because she knew they couldn’t afford the medical bills.
Conservative pundits are in an apoplectic rage over the ad. “[N]ever let a misfortune go to waste when you can accuse your opponent of murder,” wrote Mona Charen. “This has become the season of Democrat disgrace. Beyond running the dirtiest, emptiest and most deceptive campaign in memory, the party has demonstrated a total incapacity to govern.” Pat Buchanan called it “the political equivalent of poison gas,” a “moral atrocity” and the work of “super PAC mongrels” who are guilty of “a premeditated attempt to murder the reputation of Mitt Romney.”
Oh, the humanity. You will of course recall the GOP’s lamentations over the murder of John Kerry’s reputation. Buchanan probably draped himself in sackcloth and ashes and wept for days, right alongside Karl Rove.
Buchanan, Charen and other conservatives have countered the Soptic ad by pointing out Romney wasn’t actually running Bain Capital when Soptic lost his job, and that his wife had her own health insurance until she lost her job because of a shoulder injury. Several fact-checking organizations have investigated the matter and have deemed the ad misleading at best. As PolitiFact put it: “We believe that Romney bears responsibility for the general practices of Bain Capital and the record is clear that in Kansas City, Bain profited while many people suffered. But there is little to support the ad’s innuendo that Bain is responsible for the early death of the steel worker’s wife.”
As Democrats discovered to their dismay in 2004, though, even an ad that’s based on outrageous lies can work if it speaks to a larger truth about the candidate. The Swift Boaters’ lies about Kerry attacked his greatest vulnerability, and the Soptic ad is powerful and effective because it captures the truth that, as PolitiFact put it, “Bain profited while many people suffered.”
It works because voters understand that. They sense that Bain’s slash-and-burn capitalism left behind a lot of misery and destruction. They sense that indifference to the consequences of one’s actions is the heart of the Bain model, in which profit is everything. And they’ve now seen Romney choose a running mate, Paul Ryan, whose budget plan deliberately tilts the playing field further in the direction of wealth and privilege while shredding the social safety net.
We should hope for and work toward a better political culture, with more honest discussion of the actual issues and more reasoned debate regarding our policy options. As it is, we have a culture in which emotional appeals built on half-truths and lies do the work of actual facts. Few people like or trust the system. Few people think it’s anywhere close to ideal. But let’s be clear. What angers conservatives about the Soptic ad isn’t the fact that it’s deceptive. What angers them is that comes just a little too close to the truth.
With the fall rapidly approaching and the ghosts of 2004 in the air, Team Romney and its defenders are right to be worried about that. The truth will set you free, the saying goes. But sometimes, it just bites you in the ass.
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