This week, the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death inspired the Obama campaign to release an ad, titled "One Chance," in which former President Bill Clinton extols President Barack Obama's decision to order the raid that ended in bin Laden's successful dispatch from our mortal plane.
Through most of the ad, Clinton speaks rather frankly about the political costs that Obama would have faced if something had gone wrong. This isn't a bad thing to note: We'd be living in a different world today if this incursion into Pakistan had been a failure. But the reason the ad ended up making news was for the speculative turn the ad takes midway through, where it asks, "Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?"
The decision to include this counterfactual moment has generated all sorts of hullabaloo and argument. Arianna Huffington, this site's namesake, called the ad "despicable," for taking this tack.
Defenders of the ad point to the fact that Romney's previous statements on the matter -- also included in the ad -- underpin the very case they're attempting to make. The Romney campaign, perhaps ingloriously, slagged former President Jimmy Carter in an attempt to defend itself.
The bottom line is that the ad has generated a bit of ugliness, and it can be argued that had the Romney criticism been omitted, it might have been a more effective ad, thematically speaking.
But would it have won a news cycle? Probably not. And that was kind of the point. By suggesting that Romney, faced with the same choice, might have opted to do something else -- something else that was potentially deadly to Americans, the ad implies -- the Obama campaign got the chance to troll the entire media. And the fact that it generated controversy and criticism is, essentially, beside the point.
Mark McKinnon, an adviser for President George W. Bush, knows the game that's being played here: "When Democrats went crazy about our 9/11 ad in 2004, all they did was bring more attention to the message we were trying to communicate. Which is precisely the trap Republicans are falling into today."
Here's the thing, though: This is a very old game in American politics. Accusing your opponent in an electoral campaign of being the sort of person whose decisions would lead to many, many American deaths is a tradition as old as campaign ads themselves.
Let us all take a trip back into yesteryear, to review again all of the times we were told that a vote for the other guy would be fatal. (And perhaps we should also remember that no matter who we voted for, Americans continued to die, pointlessly, in various idiotic misadventures anyway!)
(Political advertising buffs are encouraged to check out the Museum of the Moving Image's The Living Room Candidate, which includes an outstanding archive of televised political ads from 1952 to 2008.)
Dwight Eisenhower: Are You Sure Adlai Stevenson Won't Plunge The World Into Darkness?
In 1956, the Korean War was over and America was safe again. But for how long? Those were the stakes set up in this lengthy ad for President Dwight Eisenhower's re-election. "Can we gamble when the stakes are so high?" asks the narrator, "Are you willing to bet everything you love and hold dear that Stevenson can also keep us out of war?" WELL CAN YOU? America couldn't. (Fun fact: This would be the last time the Democrats would produce a Presidential ticket with men named Adlai and Estes on it.)
Lyndon Johnson: Do You Want This Little Girl And Her Daisy To Die?
Lyndon Johnson's famous "Daisy" ad from 1964 might be the most famous political ad of all time, fearful or not. One interesting bit of trivia is that the ad was only aired once. (Don't worry about it," Johnson said. "I'm pretty certain that it will 'go viral' in about 40 years, you'll see.")
Richard Nixon: The Scary Democratic Convention Portends Death For Us All!
This 1968 Richard Nixon spot makes the case that chaos at the Democratic convention in Chicago was a prediction of terrible death and misery to come, in a Hubert Humphrey administration. The terror of the Democratic convention is conveyed by the Nixon team's strategic use of "hippie-vision."
Hubert Humphrey: Someone Set Up Cuba The Bomb (It Was Nixon!)
Humphrey wasn't above a little fearmongering of his own, as this spot makes clear. "Do you want Castro to have the bomb ... now?" asks the ad. Because there's this nuclear treaty that Nixon's "ehhhh ... in no hurry to pass." Humphrey, on the other hand, wants to stop the threat of nuclear weapons "before it mushrooms." (I like to think they came to regret the pun.)
Richard Nixon: No, It Was Humphrey That Set Up The Bomb!
Nixon wasn't going to take Humphrey's jab sitting down. So his campaign asked, "What kind of man do you want making ... decisions?" Give Humphrey that opportunity, and America's faces will be frozen in a rictus of abject horrow within 30 seconds. The ad ends, "This time, vote like your whole world depended on it." (As opposed to all those elections where the outcome was no big deal.)
Richard Nixon: George McGovern Will Take Away Our Toys
In 1972, Nixon drew a new opponent, George McGovern, who called for defense spending cuts. Well, okay, but holy crap! Look what's happening to all our Army dudes! And our planes and boats! (Nixon goes on to approvingly quote Humphrey's criticism of McGovern, despite the fact that he had previously questioned Humphrey's judgment.)
Jimmy Carter: 'I Don't Know, These California Liberals Sure Seem To Think Reagan Is Dangerous'
In 1980, the Jimmy Carter campaign made a tepid effort at Ronald Reagan fearmongering when it produced this spot in which various Californians expressed misgivings at the prospect of their former governor becoming president. "When I go into the polling booth," says one, "I'm not just gonna think of the politics, I gotta think of my family." Another offers, "I think it's a big risk ... Reagan scares me. He really scares me." How'd that work out? Reagan won California's 45 electoral votes.
Ronald Reagan: 'OMG It's A Bear!'
There is a bear in the woods. A SOVIET BEAR, MAYBE? Look at that bear, being all forage-y and junk! You see that bear, right? Because "some people don't see it at all." Can we tame the bear, which is communist? Probably not. We better make sure that whoever faces the bear is all "not falling for it, bear." <i>If</i> there is a bear, that is. Maybe there is no bear! But, just in case, let's not wuss out, in front of the other woodland creatures.
George Bush: John Kerry Is Making All Our Cool Weapons Disappear
Remember that anti-George McGovern ad, with the guy sweeping all of our Army guys into a pile, because of budget cuts? Sort of the same concept, only with cool computer animation.
George Bush: 'OMG It's A Wolf!'
There's a bear in the woods. Only this time, the bear is actually a bunch of wolves! (This ad came out before Team Jacob made the prospect of encountering a wolf in the woods sexually alluring.)
John Kerry: I Have Some Vague Concerns About This Bush Fellow
Yeah, let's just admit it. John Kerry was just not good at this sort of attack ad.
Hillary Clinton: Phone Is Ringing, Oh My God!
Somewhere, in the White House, a phone is ringing at 3 a.m. Incessantly ringing! People are trying to sleep. But can you afford to have someone like Senator Barack Obama in the White House? He doesn't even know how the phones work! What if he has to conference in a third caller? Or transfer a call on hold to the Situation Room or something? Hillary Clinton got all this important phone system training from human resources years ago.
John McCain: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Preconditional Claws
"Do you expect me to talk to you with preconditions?" "No, Mr. Obama, I expect you to DIE!" (Note that the John McCain campaign brought back an updated form of Nixon's "hippie vision" to make viewers think that they are having some sort of seizure.)
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