In late August, well before the McCain campaign started running with the topic, a group called the American Issues Project (AIP) launched a $2 million ad campaign in key swing states linking Barack Obama with former 1960s radical Bill Ayers. "Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it?" the ad's narrator gravely intoned. The group was quickly likened to the now infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who in 2004 tarnished John Kerry's heroism in Vietnam and his antiwar activism back home. After all, AIP employed SBVT's PR firm and political consultant and was funded by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, the second-largest donor to SBVT.
Yet AIP's ad campaign has been most notable for what it lacks: the buzz, money or impact of SBVT. Obama's association with Ayers didn't re-enter the presidential race in a major way until the McCain campaign began aggressively pushing the issue in early October--and it has hurt McCain more than it's helped. AIP's second ad, on the economic crisis in early October, focused on "Senate liberals" rather than Obama.
Such is the puzzling predicament of the conservative attack machine in 2008. Outside groups independent of the McCain campaign--the shadowy PACs, nonprofits and 527s (named for a section of the tax code)--have spawned lots of SBVT imitators but no effective heirs. An analysis by one Democratic media firm found that thirteen conservative groups had spent less than $10 million on ads from May through mid-October, far less than the $20 million spent by SBVT or the $28 million by another now defunct conservative group, Progress for America, in '04. (In contrast, the Obama campaign has dropped a record-breaking $145 million on TV ads since April.)
The money may be running dry, but conservative groups are still trying to swing the election, filling the airwaves and Internet with mini-smear campaigns against Obama. The antichoice BornAliveTruth.org features an abortion "survivor" telling the camera, "If Barack Obama had his way, I wouldn't be here." The Judicial Confirmation Network slams Obama for consorting with Ayers, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko while voting against the confirmation of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. The Committee for Truth in Politics alleges that Obama "voted to allow early release for convicted sexual abusers." RightChange.com, funded by two pharmaceutical executives, describes Obama's tax plan thus: "new welfare handouts [and] tax rates as high as 54 percent." (Most of these ads use gross distortions to make their case, just as the SBVT did.)
The net effect is to portray Obama as a bomb-throwing, baby-killing, big-government radical. But these messages have yet to find an audience beyond a sliver of the conservative base. "Wright, Rezko, Ayers--I think we're way past all that," says Republican operative Roger Stone, a veteran of GOP attack campaigns who is sitting this election out. "They were important as building blocks, but they don't matter anymore." The time to define Obama ideologically, Stone argues, was months ago.
There's no single explanation for why conservative groups have been lagging. Jonathan Martin of Politico, who follows the McCain campaign, has pointed to "tougher FEC regulations that make it more difficult to launch attacks that aren't tied to an issue, donor fatigue, lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for McCain...[and] a fear that their party's nominee will publicly denounce them and hold a grudge."
The broader implosion of the conservative movement also helps account for the impotence of these groups. Take the example of Freedom's Watch, founded with great fanfare last year by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and advised by Bush White House veterans like Ari Fleischer and Karl Rove. Though projected to spend $200 million, the group was beset by infighting and spent less than $40,000 between May and September. Freedom's Watch has been MIA during the presidential election.
Or consider Floyd Brown, the GOP operative who masterminded the devastating "Willie Horton" ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Brown planned a sequel for Obama, asking in one ad, "Was Obama ever a Muslim?" and in another, "Can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?" Yet Brown has spent only $389,536, limiting the ads to the web and a direct-mail campaign that hasn't garnered recent media attention. Other organizations have experienced similar struggles. In Macomb County, Michigan--a "Reagan Democratic" stronghold--Freedom's Defense Fund ran a series of racially incendiary ads linking Obama to Wright and disgraced Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, only to see McCain pull out of the state after Obama racked up a double-digit lead in the polls.
The most expensive ad campaign comes from Let Freedom Ring, founded in 2004 by conservative activist Colin Hanna and funded by Christian philanthropist John Templeton Jr. In mid-October the group spent $5 million examining "the often overlooked consequences of a leftist takeover of our government"--namely, "massively higher taxes, an enormous increase in restrictive regulations, a diminished military...."
To be successful, attacks from the right must be amplified by the mainstream media it so often reviles. Another group, Our Country Deserves Better PAC, released an ad tying Obama to Wright, Che Guevara and Hamas. It attracted front-page placement on Mark Halperin's popular Time blog under the headline Anti-Obama Greatest Hits Hits, even though the group had spent a paltry $72,635 (since then it has poured four times that much into ad buys). Halperin also featured an ad by a PAC called the National Republican Trust, which crudely links Obama to the 9/11 hijackers based on his past support for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants (a policy also backed by the Bush administration). The group has so far spent less than $200,000. This online attention hasn't been matched by the cable news networks, which have largely ignored the ads.
Another major reason conservative groups haven't had a big impact this election: unlike the timid Kerry campaign (which didn't initially hit back hard against SBVT), the Obama campaign has aggressively countered the attacks, urging TV stations not to run them, challenging the legality of certain organizations, debunking false charges on the website FightTheSmears.com and launching response ads of its own. Obama's ability to shape the political landscape--through an unprecedented amount of money and a sophisticated organization--has forced the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee to carry out the dirty work themselves, risking a significant public backlash. As McCain has continued to lag in the polls, the RNC and state parties have blanketed swing states with robocalls and mailers tying Obama to criminals and terrorists. (Traditional single-issue groups like the NRA are also targeting Obama.)
It's still possible that such attacks will scare enough voters away from Obama for McCain to prevail. But it doesn't seem likely, as Republicans are still fighting the last war, attached to SBVT nostalgia at a time when the slumping economy makes such smears look petty and shrill. Operatives like Roger Stone are already resigned to defeat--and looking forward to their next shot. "We're at the end of an eight-year run," Stone says. "There will be no lack of 527 money in the Congressional elections in two years, when President Obama is so unpopular he can't appear in public." Something for Republicans to hope for.