POLITICS

Bitter Fights Over DHS Brought Down A Democrat In 2002. Could It Happen To The GOP In 2016?

02/25/2015 01:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 25, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 13 years later, it remains one of the most infamous campaign ads of the post 9/11 era.

A 30-second spot that then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) ran against Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) in 2002 earned its notoriety by casting Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, as soft on the war on terror.

The ad, which contained images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, listed the votes Cleland had cast around the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Cleland had pushed to give DHS employees civil service protections, pitting him against President George W. Bush on the issue. But the ad's copy suggested that he had opposed the creation of the department itself.

It worked. Though tarred forever for dabbling in gutter politics, Chambliss emerged victorious and served two terms in the Senate.

More than a decade later, the Department of Homeland Security is once again in political crosshairs. House Republicans are threatening to let the agency's funding lapse unless the appropriations bill includes language blocking President Barack Obama's immigration executive actions. Senate Democrats won't pass such a measure, and even if they did, the president would veto it.

The agency's money is set to run out on Friday. DHS officials warn that programs will come to a halt, and that some employees will be furloughed and others will work without pay.

If that happens, however, don't expect ads like the Cleland one to return. The operative behind the spot said it simply wouldn't be effective in the current political climate, since the agency has come to represent bureaucratic largess as much as, if not more than, a deterrent to foreign threats.

"Back then, we thought DHS was on the front line against Osama bin Laden. Now we think DHS is fondling my junk in the airport," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican known for his acerbic tweeting and bare-knuckled ad-making.

"We also have to look at where we are today, in terms of bin Laden is dead but ISIS is alive. And ISIS is, in many ways, more horrific at the retail level than bin Laden was," Wilson said. "I don’t think voters think DHS is going to protect them from this nihilistic craziness. They think, drop a bomb on those motherfuckers."

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Wilson discussed the strategy behind the creation of the original spot and why similar attacks would fall flat if Democrats tried to use them today. An edited transcript is below.

How was the Cleland ad put together?
Tom Purdue, the general consultant [on the Chambliss campaign], is blunt, rough, and puts up with no bullshit. He wanted something that hit on the national security front that would really give us a bump. And the pollster and I kind of knocked it together over the course of a Friday afternoon and all of us thought, 'Holy shit, this is a fairly hot business right here.'

I can’t take full credit for writing every line of it. Tom had the genesis and idea. And, you know, everyone around the table knew there was going to be a Democratic shitstorm about it. Everyone characterized it as we besmirched his service and attacked his personal life … All these things that just weren’t true were all thrown out there. And [Sen. John] McCain lost his mind about it. McCain wanted to cut everybody’s head within a thousand mile radius. But look, the ad moved numbers.

Was there any trepidation in the room?
No. If you go back to the mechanics of the votes, and I don’t remember which one was which now because it’s been forever, but if you go back, a lot of the stuff [Cleland] was saying no on was the stuff the unions were having a problem with…. And the thought was that the ruins were practically still smoking and this guy is politicizing these votes.

You have to remember the world we were living in. We had guys fighting in the Hills of Afghanistan at that point trying to find bin Laden. It was a top of mind issue for everyday voters, that we look back and retrospect and it’s like bellbottoms. We don’t get it. But it was definitely there.

So no one was hesitant at all?
When the ad came out, Scott Howell, who was the initial media consultant on the campaign, was so scared of it he went out and denounced it. He was like, ‘I didn’t do that ad, no way, didn’t have anything to do with it.’ There is a Chris Cillizza story about it. I think Cillizza did a story years ago saying Howell renounced the ad. And everyone around the table was like: 'Pussy.’

The Washington Post story Wilson referenced is here. Howell did not immediately return a request for comment.

Describe what you were trying to do with the spot.
The ad was built ugly. The ad was built to look like it was primitive and quick and knocked off instantaneously. It is an ugly ad. It is a hideously looking ad because we wanted people to focus on the votes.

The mechanism itself is pretty simple and basic. We knew back then that saying the words ‘against the president’s vital homeland security efforts’ [would work]. At the time, George Bush had about a 68 or 64 percent approval rating in Georgia. Solid gold, OK? We were lining up Senate candidates and House candidates to go to the White House to get the two-second walk down the White House portico to get the piece of videotape because it was worth its weight in platinum.

Could you run a DHS-themed attack ad in the current climate?
Well, here's the thing. Back then, we thought DHS was on the front line against Osama bin Laden. Now we think DHS is fondling my junk in the airport … and it has become this metastasized federal behemoth that no one likes and no one trusts and no one thinks is doing the actual job of protecting us.

I know it will be hard for you to do this, but play the role of Democratic ad-maker. What would you do with the DHS funding showdown?
I would be very cautious if I were a Democrat because you push this button and Republicans have a counter ad that says 'We wanted this and they filibustered. They did the Washington D.C. thing they do. They blocked progress.' There is a rejoinder on this one that didn’t exist in 2002.

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