Newt Gingrich has been taking a pounding in Iowa, the butt of more than one-million dollars in critical advertising bankrolled by friends of Mitt Romney and by the Ron Paul campaign.
With his standing in the polls plummeting and unable to match his better-heeled opponents in the TV ad wars, Gingrich understandably is complaining about the ads. “The only person who profits from Republican ads attacking other Republicans,” claims the former speaker, “is Barack Obama and I think it pretty reprehensible behavior on the part of some of the candidates.”
There is a certain deliciousness in Newt Gingrich suffering from so-called negative ads. As one Democratic strategist points out, Gingrich is “one of the fathers of negative campaigns.” It isn’t only Democrats who are quick to note Gingrich’s history: Bill O’Reilly of Fox News refers to “his style, slash and burn.”
In the 1990s the Georgia congressman chaired GOPAC (GOP Political Action Committee) which mailed a glossary to Republican candidates urging them to characterize Democratic opponents as ‘sick,” “traitors,” “bizarre,” “corrupt,” and “pathetic.” In another mailing, Gingrich advised candidates to use personal invective against opponents because vilification works. As the godfather of modern American campaigning, Gingrich has done more to poison the national discourse than probably any other politician.
The former speaker does not have a leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about political attack ads. It’s probably fair to assume that if Gingrich had been able to raise as much money as Mitt Romney, he would be running negative ads too.
But Gingrich’s past begs an important question: What exactly are negative ads? In other words, apart from his history, does Gingrich even have a reason to complain?
We have come to view any ad that criticizes political opponents as “negative,” as something that perhaps ought not be done. Why? What’s wrong with pointing out those things in an opponent’s past that might discourage voter support? Isn’t part of campaigning demonstrating differences among candidates?
Gingrich crossed the line when urging GOP candidates to call Democrats “traitors.” But there is nothing wrong with pro-Romney ads noting that Gingrich took $1.6 million dollars from Freddie Mac and that he made an ad with Nancy Pelosi on global warming; Gingrich’s consulting work and his cooperation with Pelosi in 2008 are part of the public record.
Problems arise when advertising distorts, rips issues out of context, and falsifies the record. Take for example Romney’s notorious ad which has Barack Obama saying, presumably about his 2012 reelection campaign: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Omitted was the context: Obama made that comment in 2008 about his opponent in that election: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’”
Gingrich’s complaints do raise one valid if unintended issue: Super PACs, a new type of political action committee created in 2010 as result of court cases building on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which reversed many decades-old campaign spending regulations. Super PACs may raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, and then spend the money as they see fit. Technically independent from individual campaigns, Super PACS may not give money directly to political candidates.
Much of the money fueling anti-Gingrich ads in Iowa has been spent by a Super PAC called Restore Our Future, staffed by former Romney aides from his failed 2008 presidential bid. Romney was correct technically but disingenuous in the extreme when he claimed he was prohibited from preventing Restore Our Future from running anti-Gingrich ads. He could have disavowed those ads had he chosen to do so.
The problem with modern American campaigning is not negative ads, but the corrupting and corroding influence of money, particularly corporate money which now flows unrestricted.