Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a rock solid Democrat and a President Obama backer. But he inadvertently and almost certainly unintentionally raised a campaign problem for Obama. The problem is the danger to Obama of what many perceive as going negative in his campaign salvos at presumptive GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney. Booker initially criticized Obama's hit ad on Romney for his Bain Capital days, and then later walked it back after he took heat from Democrats. In any case, Obama's attack ad was legitimate and appropriate in the sense that Romney has made these five words, jobs and the economy, Obama failure, jobs and the economy, Obama failure, jobs and the economy, Obama failure, his one and only campaign mantra. This made Romney fair game for criticism since there has been endless pro and con political and financial debate on whether Bain, and private equity firms, are job and business creators or job and business slayers.
The hit ad also played to the two decade long penchant of presidents and their challengers to spend king's ransoms to pound their opponent with an emotion wrenching, voter disgust engendering, knock-out blow to the political gut. This means invariably grasping at every piece of gossip, innuendo, and negative fact to taint their opponent. There's a mountain of research on just whether political hit ads actually do what they're intended to do and that's to fatally wound an opponent and/or give a bump up to the attacker. The evidence is mixed. Some ads do hurt their target; others do nothing, or back fire against the attacker, by stirring anger and revulsion in voters.
But the research is near universally conclusive on one point. And that's that hit ads work best when a presidential challenger, or the president, is either trailing badly, or the race is close or the incumbent needs a game changer. The three most notable examples are Harry Truman's freewheeling attacks on the GOP, George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton hit ad on his opponent Democrat Michael Dukakis, and George W. Bush supporter's swift boat hit ad against his opponent Democrat John Kerry). The attack and ads were desperate last ditch efforts to snatch victory from defeat or possible defeat. In those cases, there was little risk of backlash, since the embattled presidents were on their way to being earmarked as one term presidents.
That is hardly the case with President Obama. This made the Bain hit ad at least at this stage of the game superfluous and even risky. The fallout from it confirmed that. The ad did not give Obama any lift. A week earlier polls showed that Obama had widened his lead over Romney but in the backwash of the Bain ad, Romney either pulled even in some polls or actually maintained a slight lead over Obama. The ad has been an unnecessary distraction. Obama and his team, and a troop of Democrats have had to spend inordinate amount of time fending off accusations that the ad was political dirt, a low blow, and fact challenged (Romney left Bain in 1999).
The topper was Booker's initial blurting out about it. The GOP quickly jumped all over it and played it up for all it was worth with a web video that pieced together Democratic stalwarts singing the glories of private equity funds and funding. It even managed to make Romney momentarily seem like the fount of sober minded, reason. He simply turned the attack on its head and railed that this was just another White House crass put down of private enterprise. In this campaign, Obama will take tens of millions from corporations and the wealthy, and a majority of Americans still firmly believe that the revival of private industry is the salvation of the economy, and the Obama administration and virtually all Democrats agree with this, this makes Bain-type hits even more problematic.
The message from the Bain flap is a simple one for Obama. That's to stay on message. The message is to run on your record. It's a stout record that keeps the focus exclusively on an economy that has shown signs of rebound, with unemployment down, with most economic indicators indicating positive growth, and the administration's proposed measures to reduce the deficit without putting at mortal risk, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, praised. Obama has more than enough ammunition in his positive economic and fiscal record to make a solid case for another four years in the White House. The message for the president then is to stop wasting time and money on Bain and Bain type hit ads -- and Romney. Obama's record stands on it its own, and that's what Americans can and will judge him on not his rip of Romney.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson