There is a cynical view of American voters that they don't care about the truth -- that they can be bamboozled into being persuaded by negative ads. "Negative ads work," is the trite expression that gets an almost unanimous nod of the head, even among those who hate them.
Well, that might be true if candidates accept the conventional wisdom from their top strategists to ignore the ads ("don't dignify them -- stay on message," was the advice reportedly given to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 about the "Swift Boat" ads.)
Since most candidates follow this advice, it's hard to find examples to prove that it is the wrong counsel and that negative ads, when successfully challenged as false or misleading, can be made to backfire. But I have one very good one.
In 2005, then-Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine (now running for the U.S. Senate) was subjected to a series of attacks by his Republican opponent in their race for the Virginia governorship.
Beginning in early October, then-Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, consistently ahead in the polls, focused most of his TV ad spending on attacking Kaine for his opposition to the death penalty, which was favored by Virginia voters by more than 2 to 1. Kaine explained that his opposition was based on religious conviction, but that as governor he would follow the law and would exercise his clemency powers sparingly.
Nevertheless, Kilgore deluged the TV airwaves with ads, stating that Kaine had said not even Adolf Hitler deserved the death penalty. But Kaine immediately published a full transcript of the interview from which the reference to Hitler was derived, and the transcript said just the opposite -- that Hitler "deserve[d] the death penalty." Then Kaine took to the airwaves with his own ads, making Kilgore's lies the issue.
The polls turned in Kaine's favor. Editorials and newspaper stories ran throughout the state highlighting the dishonesty of Kilgore and the ads he sponsored and condoned.
The Roanoke Times wrote on Oct. 13, 2005, in an editorial, "Kilgore drags the governor's race to an insulting new low with his attack on Tim Kaine's principled stance on the death penalty."
So when Tim Kaine came from behind and won on Election Day by a substantial margin of 6 percentage points -- 52 percent to 46 -- he did more than win the governorship of Virginia. He won the battle for truth -- and the vindication of the fact that voters are not stupid and don't like someone who thinks that they can be fooled by lies.
Last November, Mitt Romney was caught when his campaign ran an ad that showed Barack Obama stating that he knew little about economic issues. But it turned out that statement was actually referring to Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) own admission, not Obama's. Romney was unapologetic about the lie: "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," he said.
On April 30, Glenn Kessler wrote in his must-read Washington Post "Fact Checker" series that an ad produced by a pro-Romney super-PAC falsely accused President Obama of sending "billions" of stimulus dollars overseas to pay for green jobs. Kessler pointed out that these assertions were debunked two years ago by PolitiFact and Factcheck.org. "Yet here the erroneous assertions emerge yet again, without any shame, labeled as 'the truth' or 'fact,' " Kessler wrote. These ads were awarded the ultimate "liars" grade of "Four Pinocchios."
Unfortunately, the Obama campaign is not yet in a position to do what Tim Kaine did -- i.e., to use these lies against Romney and to prove that negative ads can backfire.
Last week, Kessler documented another false and misleading Obama campaign ad, this one about Romney's alleged record at Bain and as governor of Massachusetts supporting the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries. Kessler wrote,
"On just about every level, this [Obama campaign] ad is misleading, unfair and untrue, from the use of 'corporate raider' to its examples of alleged outsourcing. Simply repeating the same debunked claims won't make them any more correct."
Ultimately, Kessler gave the Obama campaign the same grade of "Four Pinocchios."
Nothing for any Democrat, much less the president, to be proud of.
So once again I ask President Obama's campaign about its tactical judgment here:
When you have the facts and the issues on your side, why stretch the truth at all, much less intentionally state demonstrable falsehoods? Why not win the campaign on the issues -- and on President Obama's positions on the issues and his vision for creating jobs and economic recovery, which, in my view, are far superior to Romney's?
To the president I say: Yes, you can.
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Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton's special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the book "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America" and the forthcoming book, "Crisis Tales - Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life," to be published by Simon & Schuster.