Ad Wars

AD WARS….Dana Milbank writes today about the liberal response to NARAL’s recent ad attacking John Roberts:

When conservatives complained about the ad ? which suggested that nominee John G. Roberts Jr. condoned violence against abortion clinics ? a number of prominent liberals joined in the criticism and elected Democrats ran for cover rather than defend the ad, which was dropped.

Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry’s war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.

….[Republican operative Greg Mueller, who advised the Swift boat group] said he never considered pulling the Swift boat ads when Democrats reacted with fury and independent arbiters declared the ads to be misleading. “There was never any question in our minds,” he said.

I think there are a few things that need to be said about this.

First, it’s true. Last year a well-financed group of Republicans created a slickly packaged campaign of fabricated stories designed to convince the country that John Kerry had been a coward under fire ? and virtually no senior Republicans repudiated it. I can’t think of a presidential ad campaign in my lifetime ? including Willie Horton ? that was more loathsome, but it didn’t even cause anyone to blink in the high councils of the Republican party.

Second, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that Republicans play under different ground rules than Democrats, and there’s just not much that Democrats can do about that in the short term. Nearly 40% of Americans call themselves conservatives, and that means that Republicans need to attract only a small number of center-right voters to win elections. They can run nasty campaigns designed to increase turnout among their base without worrying very much that they’re losing so many moderate voters that it will turn the election.

Democrats don’t have that luxury. Only 20% of the electorate call themselves liberals, which means that most Democratic campaigns ? especially national ones ? have to be aimed predominately at center and center-left voters who are turned off by the kind of fire and brimstone that works so well with the base. Thus, the kind of advertising that’s a net positive for Republicans is usually a net negative for Democrats. That may be “unfair” in some kind of cosmic sense, but it’s the way things are.

Third, the NARAL ad and the Swift Boat ads mostly demonstrate that conservatives are just better at this stuff than we are. The Swift Boat folks were able to manufacture uncertainty by focusing on an event that was genuinely hard to gather facts about. It was something that happened over 30 years ago, they methodically gathered up eyewitnesses willing to fabricate stories about it, and it took weeks for the media to do the research to figure out they were lying. By then it didn’t matter.

The NARAL ad, conversely, focused on an event in which the facts were well established and every news organization in the country was able to figure out within hours that the charges against Roberts were dubious at best. Sure, partisans could have stuck with NARAL, but the court of public opinion matters, and the NARAL ad was so easy to fact check that there was never any chance of winning in that court. That’s dumb politics.

So that’s that. But there’s one more thing. All this aside, I think that playing by a higher set of standards than Republicans is in the best interests of the Democratic party in any case. Liberalism simply doesn’t flourish in the climate of fear and rage that works so well for conservatives, and I think that in the long run we do ourselves a disservice when we help create a climate like that.

Which is not to say that Democrats shouldn’t be vigorous and unyielding in their views. They should. They just shouldn’t be dumb about it. Public support for George Bush and the Republicans may be slipping, but it would be nice if that eventually turned into active support for Democrats, rather than merely an occasional grudging vote because the other guys are worse. So far it hasn’t.