Rivals not holding back as race for Republican nomination heats up
If the late Lee Atwater, the bogey man of the dark arts of political attack ads, and a man whom fellow Republican campaign heavy-hitter Ed Rollins described as someone who just "had to drive in one more stake", was around for the 2012 presidential election season, he might have tipped his hat to King of Bain: When Mitt Romney comes to Town.
The video, unleashed last week by Winning Our Future, a political action committee, or PAC, that supports Newt Gingrich, is a minor attack ad classic in its merciless, biased take on Romney's role as CEO at Bain Capital.
The private equity firm, which Romney co-founded and ran, is depicted by the film as a rapacious asset-stripper that eviscerated American firms and left thousands jobless.
"Capitalism made America great," intones the introduction. "Free markets. Innovation. Hard work. The building blocks of the American Dream. But in the wrong hands, some of those dreams can turn into nightmares." Guess whose hands?
In the rosy American Dream, entrepreneurs build things. Romney is cast as a buccaneer who grew rich destroying lives and communities, "playing the system for a quick buck". The film interviews the shell-shocked, mostly white workers, sacked from four US firms the PAC says Bain gutted.
"They could never get enough money," relates Tracy Jones, depicted as dispossessed by Bain. The film pushes a relentless message: jobs lost, communities gutted, Bain enriched. Little people lose badly when Mitt Romney comes to town. It even includes a clip of a youthful Romney, a Mormon missionary in France, speaking French - a bonus when smearing candidates as out of touch with everyday folk.
The narrative flays predatory capitalism to reinforce the image of Romney as a rich, out of touch, unrepentant 1 per center, no friend to the common man in an election that comes down to how much Americans have in their wallets.
Most attack ads are nasty, brutal and short. King of Bain, which debuted online and was mined for a blitzkrieg of TV spots in the South Carolina primary, spends 28 minutes skewering Romney as a vulture capitalist worth a quarter of a billion dollars. Debate rages about its veracity and Romney's claim he created 100,000 jobs.
The Washington Post found the film "highly misleading" and "an over-the-top assault". Even Gingrich asked for inaccuracies to be excised or the ad pulled from the air.
He may have even meant it. But campaigns are allowed no connection to Super PACs, which emerged after a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowed corporations, unions or individuals to make unlimited contributions to candidates.
"Some of these bankruptcies happened years after Bain ended its involvement," explains Robert Farley, who analysed the four firms mentioned in the video for FactCheck.Org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre.
The ad "often overstates or outright distorts Romney's culpability for job losses or bankruptcies", said FactCheck. But facts rarely get in the way of an attack ad.
The idea is that perception sticks. Like many firms that grew rich through leveraged buyouts - borrowing to buy and sell companies, sometimes sacking staff - Romney did well in a 15-year run when Bain bought over 115 companies.
Going negative is to US elections what turkeys are to Thanksgiving. The King of Bain returned broadsides against Gingrich from Romney's PAC, Restore Our Future. Support for the former House of Representatives Speaker withered as Restore Our Future attacked Gingrich's probity - he was drummed out in 1998 for ethics violations and fined US$300,000 ($373,577) - and his controversial personal life.
FactCheck found some claims "distorted, false or misleading". Others are "right on target". A suggestion Gingrich co-sponsored a bill for a UN programme "supporting China's brutal one-child policy" was misleading.
Nor did he earn US$30,000 an hour from Freddie Mac; it was US$25,000 to US$30,000 a month, although this did amount to about one hour's work. But Gingrich did "team up with Nancy Pelosi on global warming", joining the Democrat lawmaker to advocate US action on climate change. And he is the only Speaker in US history reprimanded and fined for ethics violations.
With Romney surging ahead, South Carolina may be a decider, as Jon Huntsman ended his campaign this week to support Romney. The former Bain man must best Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum to become heir apparent.
The latest salvos have Winning Our Future branding Romney a RINO - Republican In Name Only - and a corporate raider "more ruthless than Wall St". Restore Our Future rakes over Gingrich's ethics violations, plus alleged flip-flops on immigration, health care and Iraq. As South Carolina is a Bible Belt state, he is accused of fishing for votes by switching from supporting abortion rights to opposing them.
The other candidates have also got in a few punches. The Santorum campaign says Romney supported the Obama bailouts and pioneered radical health care co-opted for "Obamacare".
Paul accuses Gingrich and Santorum, "a serial hypocrite who can't be trusted", of exploiting their Washington connections, and says Santorum took earmarks, raised the debt ceiling and accepted lobbyists' money.
Negative ads always relish character assassination. In 2008, the John McCain camp suggested, falsely, that Democrats likened his running mate Sarah Palin to a pig and that Obama wanted sex education for infants. Obama was compared to Paris Hilton, implying he was a shallow egomaniac.
Democrats suggested McCain wanted a 1000-year war in Iraq.
This season, economic issues are dominant, reflecting widespread public anger about the bailouts and the recession. Democrats have already indicated Romney's Bain years will be raked over if he is the GOP nominee.
Those seeking relief from this relentless blitzkrieg might turn to a one-minute ad from the Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow PAC, set up by comedian Stephen Colbert.
It spoofs the King of Bain, depicting "corporations are people" Romney as a serial-killer of jobs who asset-stripped his way to the top.
"If you believe corporations are people, do your duty and protect them. On Saturday, January 21, stop Mitt the Ripper before he kills again!"
To those unfamiliar with the powerful heft of the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, attack ads can seem tough, even libellous stuff. But the 2012 crop is pretty tepid.
Romney's Bain years and Gingrich's career as Speaker have been rehashed before. While the King of Bain sets some kind of precedent for length, it falls short of the negativity benchmark set by past attack ad savagery.
As yet, nothing has emerged to match the sheer nastiness of the Swift Boat ad assault that sank White House aspirant John Kerry in 2004 by sullying his Vietnam War record - dark-art genius considering incumbent George W. Bush evaded Vietnam service by joining the Texas Air National Guard - or that Atwater gem, the Willie Horton spot in 1988 that linked Democrat George Dukakis, portrayed as soft on crime, with a convicted killer and rapist, thereby helping propel George H. Bush towards the Oval Office.
But if the negativity quotient remains average, what is new are the Super PACS that fund the slots. The King of Bain was paid for by a US$5 million donation made by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a longtime Gingrich backer.
This has raised some tail-wagging-the-dog fears, as PACs are beyond campaign control. "Candidates don't like to feel they don't have absolute control over the message, even if it's a message of support," says Bob Biersack, a senior fellow with the Centre for Responsive Politics. "It makes them nervous. Bad things can happen when people outside a campaign's control take matters into their own hands."
Meanwhile, South Carolina's media is awash with attack ads.
"People are going to stoop to new, interesting ad tactics that we haven't seen in the past," said DeWitt Zemp, a former Bush clan strategist. "They're going to go even more negative than they have in the past as a result of where we are in the election process. It's all hands on deck against Romney."
And Biersack notes that negative ads emerged unusually early in the 2012 race as candidates appeared, enjoyed a moment in the sun, then vanished. "It's not as common to have them used in the intraparty, primary season battle, as opposed to the general election when the nominee is known."
Huntsman complained about the "toxic tone" of the race, specifically "an onslaught of negative and personal attacks". He may have been worried that such assaults are a boon to the Obama camp, as it sifts through the GOP's dirty linen for missiles to hurl at the eventual nominee.
If Romney is anointed, the predatory capitalism smear and gaffes on income - including this week's admission his fortune is taxed at 15 per cent, below average wage packets, and a belief an annual US$370,000 speaking fee is "not very much" - makes him vulnerable to claims he represents the 1 per cent from Obama, who has begun to talk of "gaping" US inequality, a possible election theme.
While PACs supporting Republican hopefuls have been centre stage, American Crossroads, a Super PAC supported by GOP fixer Karl Rove and others, has focused on Senate and congressional races at state level. It may be saving its powder for the national election, with Obama the target.