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.”