I haven’t said much about the TV ads coming out of the U.S. midterm election cycle, but this one is interesting enough that I couldn’t resist commenting on it. Brief background: Democrat Jack Conway is running for Senate in Kentucky against Republican Rand Paul (son of Ron). Kentucky, like many Southern states, is heavily Republican and is becoming more so (an example is Arkansas, where Democrats have been flailing ever since Bill Clinton left), and Paul has mostly abandoned or downplayed the views that bring him closer to his genuinely anti-government father — particularly on national security, where Rand usually sounds as hawkish as any regular Republican. So Paul has led comfortably in the polls for a long time now, and Conway seemed to have no shot.
He may still have no shot, but he’s a lot closer in the polls now than he used to be, and it’s because of this ad, the Hail Mary pass of the campaign in several different senses. The ad picks up on stories of what Rand Paul was in college: though he’s apparently not named after Ayn Rand, he is a big Rand fan, and was sort of the stereotype of the Randian fratboy. The point of the ad is not simply that there are rumours of him participating in nasty fratboy pranks; that’s not disqualifying. The point of the ad is, simply, to tell religious voters that Rand Paul is secretly godless and is playing them for suckers.
Josh Green at the Atlantic Monthly has some coverage of how this is playing in Kentucky. Since he wrote this, Paul has agreed to show up for the final debate against Conway. The ad may not be enough to tip the race to Conway, but it is helping him in the polls, not so much because of its message as because it’s thrown Paul off his own, successful message (attacking Obama and Democrats, who are very unpopular in Kentucky). It’s been compared to the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ad against John Kerry, which threw Kerry off-message and turned several weeks of the election into an argument over whether Kerry was doing enough to respond to the ads — thereby reinforcing the Bush campaign’s message that Kerry was a wishy-washy wimp.
The ad itself, of course, is shameless. Some have defended it by arguing that it makes a legitimate point, that Paul is not the religious guy he claims to be (“Rand Paul keeps Christ in his heart,” as Paul’s response ad says). Ayn Rand worship is, for obvious reasons, incompatible with strong religious belief. But that’s not the way the ad is putting it — it’s not just saying that Paul is a fraud, it’s saying that he worships false gods and that a litmus test for being a god-fearting man is supporting federal funding for anything “faith-based.” So it’s not an ad you would think liberals would rush to defend.
And some liberals are attacking the ad, but some are defending it — not the substance of the ad, but the tone and the take-no-prisoners attitude. As Green notes, it’s become a sort of online litmus test for liberals who believe in “fighting back.” It’s an article of faith among many U.S. liberals that Democrats are timid and don’t fight back hard enough against right-wing attacks — it’s been that way at least since the 2000 Florida recount, when (as liberals saw it) Democrats folded too easily while Republicans used every partisan tool at their disposal. This feeling became even stronger in 2004, when the Swift Boat thing hit and Kerry’s supporters didn’t hit back with ads about Bush’s past. Whether this is true or not — and conservatives certainly don’t see liberals as being soft and shrinking and overly moral — liberals tend to believe that their side doesn’t play hardball enough.
So Conway is, perhaps, getting some extra support from liberals despite putting out an incredibly illiberal ad, because many liberals have come to believe that only illiberal tactics can accomplish liberal goals. Here’s how a Talking Points Memo reader put it:
I think many Dems want to be true blue throughout, upright to the end. They believe, strongly, that their policies are right and true and if all were fair, then they would be enacted… The second group believes in the end result more than the means. This stance is the Republican party methodology writ large. From the dog whistle politics, to the scare tactics in campaigns, to the outright lying to the press, they don’t care how they get to the desired end, but that they get there… For my perspective, the first group made us wait 60 years for universal health care, is making us wait for an end to DADT, lost the opportunity for clean technologies, and couldn’t pass legislation to force disclosure of the vast sums of post-Citizens United moneys now flooding the campaigns. In other words, they didn’t get the job done. I, myself, believe that I want results and if the methods are legal, go for it.
Again, while I don’t usually believe in being “balanced” and not making a judgment, I’m not honestly sure who’s right: both sides in politics always believe that the other side is more hardball and nasty than their own. So I’m not saying I agree with liberals that they always play softball — it may be more that losers always get a reputation for playing softball. (The winning Democratic Presidential campaigns — LBJ with the Daisy ad, Clinton, Obama, even Carter in 1976 — put together some pretty hardball attack ads.) But what we are seeing in the U.S. is that liberals are increasingly tired of believing that their side plays softball, and want to do whatever works; they want their side to emulate Karl Rove and Lee Atwater.