There's a reason George W. Bush called Karl Rove "Boy Genius." When it comes to attack ads, no one is smarter.
Bush also had another nickname for his chief political guru, "Turd Blossom." Given the high level of B.S. in Rove's ads, that moniker is well earned. Then again, truth is never the point in any political ad; effectiveness is everything.
There has probably never been a completely honest advertisement done for any candidate. Way back in the presidential campaign of 1840, William Henry Harrison was sold to the public as a humble frontiersman. The log cabin and hard cider were his campaign symbols. In reality, he was born into a wealthy, slave-owning, plantation family in Virginia.
If creating positive spin about a candidate has been around for a long time, negative campaigning has been part of the political process for just as long. The presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson remains one of the nastiest on record. But the gargantuan amount of money available in modern campaigns promises to produce a quantum leap in meanness.
Currently, the Obama campaign is circulating tough attack videos that claim to expose the truth about Mitt Romney's time as a venture capitalist. The ads feature beleaguered workers who lost their jobs when Romney's firm, Bain Capital, came in to restructure the companies they worked for. Several Democrats, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, have criticized this line of attack, saying it goes too far in condemning a perfectly reasonable type of business practice, but the Obama campaign is not relenting.
Republicans, meanwhile, got into their own internal spat when one conservative ad shop proposed revisiting President Obama's long relationship with firebrand Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. Sarah Palin was all for it, but Romney nipped the idea in the bud.
Rove agreed with Romney. Replaying the Wright debate would be "stupid," he said. Instead, his "super PAC," Crossroads GPS, is spending $10 million to broadcast a video that hits the president on economic issues and makes its appeal to middle-of-the-road women who may have voted for Obama in 2008. It is the biggest ad buy so far in the 2012 campaign.
In the video, a mom worries about the national debt and her kids' future. There is a visual reference to burdensome student loans, a verbal assertion that federal spending has skyrocketed during the Obama years, a plea to cut the deficit and a warning that Obama wants to raise taxes. This heavily focus-group-tested package ends with a plea to join a grass-roots effort to tell the president he must change his profligate ways. It is expertly executed and, of course, it is also hugely misleading.
On student loans, Obama doubled Pell Grants and eliminated banking fees from the student loan equation, while Romney and the Republicans are all for cutting federal student aid. Skyrocketing federal spending? More deception. It is a plain fact that spending has flattened out during Obama's time in office. Deficit reduction? Obama's present plan is projected to cut the deficit by $2 trillion over the next 10 years while the scheme proposed by Romney would increase the deficit by $5 trillion over the same period, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. And raising taxes? The president is pushing higher taxes for the rich, not for any struggling, middle-class moms.
Oh, and that grass-roots effort? That's really Karl Rove and the millionaires and billionaires who pay for his ads.
What makes Rove brilliant? He knows better than to waste time with silly issues, like the president's birth certificate. He knows the economy is the biggest concern of most voters. And he knows that the average Jane or Joe does not have a command of the economic facts and so will not question the false assertions Rove's team has injected into a heartstrings-tugging scenario.