The Atwater Playbook: How Low Will McCain Go?

10/02/2008 08:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the race tightening and an economic crisis looming, most political operatives are expecting that John McCain will double-down on his negative campaigning against Obama, with the last few weeks turning into a descent into nearly-unprecedented smear campaigning at a presidential level. As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder points out about Obama staffers:

They also worry that McCain, who's been running a mix of positive and negative television ads, will dump his money into an entirely negative campaign in October, one that would question Obama's fitness, patriotism and identity.

Already, though, the McCain campaign has gone well beyond what the Machievallian mastermind of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater, used to smear opponents of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush when he chaired Bush's 1988 election drive. That's the view of Stefan Forbes, the director of the hard-hitting new documentary on Lee Atwater, Boogie Man, that seeks to understand how those tactics worked and the resentments that drove the man who helped pioneer them. As he pointed out in an interview on the radio show I co-host, the kindergarten pedophile ad aimed at Obama (under the guise of a fabricated charge of seeking to teach sex ed) crossed a line that Lee Atwater wouldn't have crossed -- because he wouldn't want his candidate labeled as a dirty campaigner.

Atwater's legacy lives on, as a recent New York Times editorial points out:

Many of today's third-party ads like the Swift Boat attacks that helped defeat Senator John Kerry in 2004 are linear descendants of the Willie Horton campaign. A supposed slip of the tongue that in fact gets some truly nasty tidbit on the record -- that tactic is straight from the Atwater manual. As are nasty blog items, quickly denied by candidates who know full well that their supporters are behind them.

These tricks contribute to voter apathy. They destroy good people. They make it harder for candidates and their families to brave the campaign trail.

Forbes argues that Democrats have to learn to fight back hard by framing the dirty-tricksters as low-ball campaigners and reaching out to people in populist, emotionally-based ways to reach them. If we as a nation continue to fall for smears, we'll regret it, he says.

Let's hope the Obama campaign takes the right lessons from the Boogie Man film and the strategic thinking of its director.