The most toxic and notorious political ad in history was Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" commercial used against Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964.
On Sunday, New York magazine's Frank Rich called for President Obama to create and air a series of attack ads in the style of "Daisy" to "nuke" Mitt Romney:
The serious questions raised by the early Obama ads are not whether they were too much but too little: Was waiting until May behind the curve? Are the ads vicious enough to inflict lasting damage? Is there a nuclear option in Obama’s advertising arsenal that can blow Romney out of the water as LBJ’s immortal mushroom-cloud “Daisy” ad did Barry Goldwater on Labor Day in 1964? Given the anemic employment numbers and the pack of billionaire GOP sugar daddies smelling blood after their Wisconsin victory, a reboot of hope and change would truly be the reelection campaign’s most self-destructive option…The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory.
Rich then went through a history of negative campaigning going all the way back to the 1828 race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. The article is actually worth the read just for the trip down memory lane.
Next, he addressed the modern beginnings of complaints about such ads, and how the media have actually been responsible for hyping their number and significance:
[T]he 1988 Dukakis-Bush campaign, widely regarded as the nadir of modern American political mudslinging, was not notably more negative than those before or after, and that, contrary to public perception and [Lee] Atwater’s apology, [Michael] Dukakis ran more negative ads than Bush did. “The advertising in 1988, despite all the claims, did not usher in a new era of American politics,” [John Geer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt] writes. “It was the news media’s coverage that brought about a new era.” By his Nexis reckoning, there was a fourfold increase in the number of articles on campaign negativity in the Times and Washington Post from 1984 (8) to 1988 (32). It was in 1988 that a national magazine (Newsweek) first ran a cover story on negative political ads, and it was also that year that a candidate (Dukakis) first ran an attack ad attacking attack ads. [...]
Geer’s research also indicates that attack ads are in every way bipartisan: Democrats and Republicans have deployed them in roughly equal measure (as have election winners and losers). [...]
But if the “Daisy” ad was not determinative in Johnson’s reelection victory and not a balanced depiction of Goldwater, it remains the gold standard of attack ads for good reason. Now that Obama is trying to fend off a GOP as radically right wing as Goldwater was, it’s a standard he will have to meet...With limited resources and a bum economy on his shoulders, the Obama of 2012 may have to win the air war with an imaginative coup as dazzling as the Democrats pulled off in 1964.
Rich then outlined some subjects Obama’s attack ads should hit on:
The Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe previewed one battle plan to John Heilemann of New York recently. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe said. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.
That’s one way to go. There’s also the flip-flopping Mr. Etch A Sketch. There’s Romney’s countless tone-deaf attempts to feel the pain of the 99 percent. (My favorite, delivered to a group of jobless workers, remains “I’m also unemployed.”) There’s his risible, if dogged, effort to deny that his Massachusetts health-care law was the precursor of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.”
Of course, Romney’s religious beliefs should also be addressed:
Romney’s “secretive” faith looms larger than it should precisely because he keeps it secretive. He bristles when asked questions about the Church of Latter Day Saints’ controversial record on secular issues (like civil rights), and he refuses to let voters in on his own substantial career as a Mormon bishop and stake president. In a political culture where all candidates, and especially Republican candidates, advertise their own religious activities, Romney’s reticence is all the more conspicuous.
Romney could yet succeed in “creating a new character for himself” before the Democrats create a frightening one for him. The task for the Obama campaign, not nearly as easy as the “Daisy” ad makes it look, is to nuke him first in 60 seconds of gut-wrenching and—dare one say it?—nauseating TV.
This is how far Rich feels Obama should go to win.
It's nauseating enough without the visuals.
Post facto addendum:
Without realizing it, Rich threw cold water on the concept that today's politics are the most caustic in American history (emphasis added):
No campaign may ever top the Andrew Jackson–John Quincy Adams race of 1828, in which Jackson was accused of murder, drunkenness, cockfighting, slave-trading, and, most delicious of all, cannibalism. His wife and his mother, for good measure, were branded a bigamist and a whore, respectively. (Jackson won nonetheless.) In the last national campaign before the advent of political television ads, lovable Harry Truman didn’t just give hell to the “do nothing” Congress, as roseate memory has it. In a major speech in Chicago in late October 1948, he revisited still-raw World War II memories to imply that the “powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions”—that would be the Republicans— and their chosen front man, Thomas Dewey, were analogous to the Nazis and Hitler. Over-the-top? Dewey was a liberal by the standards of the postwar GOP and had more in common with a department-store mannequin than with a Fascist dictator.
Just remember that the next time some liberal media member is claiming he or she has never seen anything like the political tone in Washington, D.C today.
It's because he or she wasn't alive when things were far worse, and is ignorant of American history.