Dirty tricks work in politics because it is human nature to see the worst of ourselves in others, particularly in those we feel are more powerful than we are. They have enjoyed a proud legacy in our land of guttersnipes. Back in 1790, Thomas Jefferson, famed founder, president, and ex-slave romancer, hired a pamphleteer to smear his opponent for the presidency, Alexander Hamilton. The plan backfired. But the stratagem endured.
Nearly 200 years later we got Watergate, in which Richard Nixon, a sitting president, consented to having his underlings conduct a wide array of dastardly deeds, including spying on political opponents and recruiting conservatives to infiltrate opposition groups. The latter practice was known as “ratfucking.”
The eventual exposure of Nixon’s lies, and subsequent resignation, provided the nation a comforting sense of moral reassurance. We were not, to quote the man in question, crooks. Nor would we brook such skullduggery amongst our leaders.
But the true fate of dirty tricks in modern American politics resides in a more obscure story, that of the chubby, bespectacled teenager who, in the fall of 1970, lied his way into the campaign offices of Alan J. Dixon, the democratic candidate for Treasurer of Illinois. Without anyone taking notice, the teenager stole 1000 sheets of campaign stationary, which he turned into fliers touting “free beer, free food, girls, and a good time for nothing” at the next Dixon rally. He then handed them out at local soup kitchens.
Karl Rove: you were adorable as a youngster!
Rove and a colleague wound up touring the country, training young Republicans in the fine art of ratfucking. These pep talks earned the young college dropout a bit part in the Watergate saga. The Washington Post ran a story about them in August of 1973, a year before Nixon resigned, with a headline noting that the Republican party was probing a minor official “as Teacher of Tricks.”
But here’s the crazy part. Rather than sending Rove into political exile, the chairman of the Republican National Committee—a man by the name of George Herbert Walker Bush—brought him to Washington. Four years later, Rove was sent to Texas where he met Bush’s hard-drinking son George W., and became his lodestar.
Rove learned two enduring lessons. First, that fortune favors the bold. And second, that the Republican party—for all its moralizing—almost never punish politicians or their advisors for dirty tricks. It promotes them.
In subsequent years, Rove built an empire dedicated to what is known in political circles as “driving the negatives.” The idea is simply to carpet bomb the electorate with direct mailers and television ads that accuse a candidate of whatever seems scariest. The truth of these claims is, to an astonishing degree, irrelevant. What matters is that the accused candidate never gets to discuss his or her own policies, because they are stuck defending themselves.
Dirty tricks are especially effective in wooing what political commentators generously call the “low-information voter.” A recent survey revealed that a majority of Mississippi Republicans believe President Obama is a Muslim. The low-information voter constructs reality according to his bigotries, and folks like Rove make sure those bigotries are kept at a boil.
But driving the negatives also works to keep voters in a state of perpetual disgust that obscures their own best interests. This is why voters overwhelmingly support the particular provisions of health care reform—the provision that forbids insurance companies from refusing coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, say—but oppose the law. Muddy the political bath water enough and out goes the baby of policy.
Dirty tricks thrive today because of fundamental changes in the laws regarding money and political speech. Back in the days of Watergate, Dickie Nixon actually was held responsible for the activities of the Campaign to Re-elect the President. Thus, he was forced to lie about their activities, to engineer a cover up. And it was the cover up that doomed him.
Candidates these days don’t have to worry about cover ups. They simply outsource their dirty work to organizations that claim to be independent entities. Some of this outside money goes to political action committees. But Super PACs require that donors disclose their names.
And so increasingly, dirty tricksters are choosing to create tax-exempt non-profit groups which are ostensibly operated “exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” Karl Rove has a Super PAC (American Crossroads) but also a non-profit called Crossroads GPS. To clarify: Crossroads GPS is a 501 (c) (4). The IRS considers it a “civic league or organization,” an entity of the sort traditionally formed to fight cancer or foster the arts or, you know, promote social welfare.
Billionaire donors love these new shadow PACs because they can give unlimited cash anonymously. Which is why Crossroads GPS has raised twice as much money as Rove’s plain old Super Pac. Both entities will be pouring tens of millions into driving the negatives of democratic candidates this fall, as they did in the past election cycle, when Republicans regained the House majority.
Ratfucking also has become an accepted practice among the quasi-journalists at the extreme ends of political spectrum. The late Andrew Breitbart, aided by his loyal enemies in mainstream media, built a career on ratfucking. Lacking the courage or integrity to practice, or sponsor, genuine investigative reporting, he simply sat in his basement and edited videotape dishonestly. Rather than being arrested, or ignored, he became a regular on the cable TV circuit.
These innovations in ratfucking have been a Godsend to Mitt Romney. The former Governor has proved an unmitigated disaster as a retail politician. He is unable to win voters over via the traditional channels of human interaction. People don’t like him. They don’t trust him. On a gut level, they don’t feel they know him.
But Romney and his backers have one thing his opponents don’t: lots and lots of money. And they have used that money to dispatch one challenger after another by pouring millions into nasty television ads. Romney clobbered Gingrinch in Florida, and Santorum in Illinois and Wisconsin not by winning voters to his cause (whatever that might be) but by driving their negatives up.
Romney could, of course, pursue another course. He could seek the counsel of his conscience. He could ask himself why he wants to be president, what he believes in and who he is. And he could make an effort to put that across to voters. But he’s not that kind of guy. He’s a creature of the business world, a pragmatist. He knows what works. Why give a heartfelt speech, or take questions from the public, when you can pay for a private appeal to voter’s resentments and fears, delivered via television? It’s risk-free ratfucking.
Over the course of the primary season, it’s become painfully obvious that Romney and Rove and company are going to conduct their campaign against Obama in precisely this manner. Look no further than the upcoming Pennsylvania primary: the barrage of hate advertising aimed at Rick Santorum over the next two weeks is but a misting of the slime to come.
The members of the Fourth Estate might certainly ponder how the production and distribution of raw political propaganda can be characterized as “promotion of social welfare.” That, my friends, is a riddle you might want to take up with your local representative, or newspaper editor, or with the Supreme Court