PRIMARY COLLARS….UPDATED….A couple of days ago I wondered aloud if we should really be worried about the attacks that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are leveling at each other right now. Is John McCain really likely to use these attacks in TV ads during the general election? I couldn’t think of any examples of this from past elections, so I asked the hive mind if they could think of any.
This rapidly degenerated into the usual bickering between Clinton and Obama supporters, which at this point has become considerably more irritating and vitriolic than anything the candidates themselves are saying. So even though it’s off topic, the best comment came from lobbygow:
“Shithead” has just gained 10 points on the insult market. Invest now. “Asshole” is down 12, but still a good buy for the long haul. Analysts claim that the relatively obscure “blackguard” could make a comeback, but the day traders are throwing their spare change at “fuckwad.” Most industry watchers agree that the increasing emotional stakes in the primary season are the main variable driving the expletives and ad hominem markets at the moment.
OK. Glad I got that off my chest. Hopefully everyone can calm down a bit this time around.
Now, are there any examples of general election candidates using primary criticisms as part of their own campaign? The short answer is yes, but apparently not very recently and not very often.
First, though, a caveat. Several people brought up the fact that in 1988 Al Gore mentioned Michael Dukakis’s prison furlough program in the primary, something that later morphed into the infamous attack on Willie Horton by George Bush’s campaign. But this isn’t what I’m looking for. There are only a certain number of effective attacks against a given candidate, and it’s common for different opponents to end up attacking a candidate on the same issue. The question, rather, is whether or not general election candidates use the primary attack itself as fodder for their campaign. As in, “Even my opponent’s fellow Democrats believe….”
So here are the examples that various people came up with:
Harkov57: In 1980 a group calling itself “Democrats for Reagan” made an ad with Ted Kennedy criticizing Jimmy Carter. It went off the air pretty quickly, though, since it was made without Kennedy’s permission. Video here.
Patrick and others: George Bush’s “voodoo economics” line against Reagan was used by Carter and others. It didn’t show up in an ad, as far as I can tell, but during Carter’s October 29 debate with Reagan he said, “Governor Reagan recently mentioned the Reagan-Kemp-Roth proposal, which his own running mate, George Bush, described as ‘voodoo economics’ and said that it would result in a 30 percent inflation rate.”
Phil Klinkner: In 1964, LBJ ran an ad quoting several Republicans calling Barry Goldwater a lunatic. Phil has a video of the ad at the link.
Phil Klinkner: In 1972, Richard Nixon ran an ad that quoted Hubert Humphrey criticizing George McGovern’s plan to cut defense spending.
Bottom line: Primary attacks have been used before by general election candidates, but not very often and not since 1980, it seems. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like something to get too worried about. I imagine that attacks like these aren’t very effective because (a) by the time Labor Day rolls around they’re old, and the press generally refuses to spend time on “old news,” (b) voters know that politics is politics and generally discount these kinds of attacks, and (c) it’s so easy for politicians to talk their way around this stuff that it’s hard to make the criticisms stick. Hell, if George Bush could call Reagan’s tax plan “voodoo economics” and then run as his vice president, this stuff just can’t matter very much. There are probably lots of other attacks that are far more effective, and that’s why we don’t see this kind of thing very often.
That said, several commenters suggested that things are different in the YouTube age. Maybe some of the Obama/Clinton attacks won’t show up in 30-second network spots, but they might become big hits on YouTube and in the blogosphere and gain traction that way. There’s no way of knowing whether that’s true, but it’s certainly possible. After all, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
UPDATE: In his trademark style, Bob Somerby points out that early in the 2000 primary Bill Bradley asked Al Gore, “Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as president if you don’t tell the truth as a candidate?” The Bush campaign subsequently used that remark at the top of some of its press releases and on the campaign trail.