Try running against the candidate, not the caricature.Rep. Sam Graves might have put out the very worst campaign ad of the century, but there is one upside: At least now we know what’s in his nightmares. And it ain’t pretty. The ad is a wacky, hallucinatory vision of what kind of dystopia the Missouri Republican fears (and wants you to fear, too)—that his Democratic opponent, Kay Barnes, would usher in: an era dominated by “San Francisco-style values,” which are represented in the ad by three outlandishly dated, muscle-shirted, obviously meant-to-seem-gay figures shimmying to disco tunes.
“Barnes is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from West Coast liberals by promoting their values,” the ad’s announcer intones gravely. Evidently—in Graves’ feverish imagination, at least—even modern-day, Midwestern, schoolmarmish Democrats like Barnes secretly dream of creating a 1970s-vintage decadent world that exactly resembles “Swingtown,” except with more Dick Durbin.
Graves’ ad became an instant YouTube classic, and not in a good way. But Graves didn’t repent of his much-ridiculed line of attack. Oh, no. He went ahead and dropped another, similar spot, this one showing Barnes cutting a rainbow-colored cake. A gay birthday cake—geez, next they’ll be coming for Christmas.
If it was only Sam Graves campaigning in a world dominated by antiquated party stereotypes, I wouldn’t feel so low. But this summer has seen lawmakers on both sides of the aisle dialing back their campaign calendars to years that are decidedly not 2008. The GOP, for its part, has got its time machine set to a period when radicals, San Franciscans, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll were America’s biggest enemies, and when everything the Silent Majority feared could be summed up in that dreaded dirty word “liberal.” In a recent special election in Louisiana’s 6th District, the National Republican Congressional Committee chose to run against Don Cazayoux, a genial moderate Democrat and abortion foe, like he was the second coming of George McGovern, come to pry the guns out of the hands of the poor people of the bayou. “Everybody knows Don Cazayoux is a liberal!” one NRCC ad chirped. Another ad merely flashed a picture of Nancy Pelosi, assuming that a mention of the Fury from Frisco could knock a few points off of Cazayoux’s totals, easy. Over in Mississippi, during the special election for the 1st District, Republicans laced commercials with the poison words “radical” and “liberal” in an effort to support their candidate, Greg Davis. “Liberals are on the march,” went one such anti-Travis Childers ad, as though liberals constituted a dark army of Howard Zinn-indoctrinated political orcs. “Conservative Greg Davis will stop them.”
Central to Republican efforts has been the assumption that Americans hear the words “radical” and “liberal” and instantly break into the political equivalent of allergic hives. And until recently, this wouldn’t have been a bad bet. Traumatized by the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, we’ve been ready to equate “liberal”—a word with an august history in the longer American political tradition—with “transgressive” and “anti-American.” But everyone’s been saying this is a “change election,” and it looks like indeed it is. Like a monster under the bed that terrifies and terrifies the child until one morning it doesn’t, the ads just didn’t work. Democrat Cazayoux won his election in a lipstick-red district, and as for Childers, he did better in a re-vote after the ads ran than he did before. The GOP said “liberal”—boo!—but nobody flinched.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have entrenched themselves around 2005, when violence soared in Iraq, Katrina was fresh—and Republicans were still treating the president as though he were the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln. The Democratic game might be called “pin the Bush-love on the GOPer” as frenzied strategists rifle through the archives to find any Bush-positive quote uttered by their Republican opponent or, more ideally, a photo of Bush giving their opponent a little affectionate noogie. Take just one example of the genre: “It’s not enough that George Bush is going in January of 2009,” fumed funnyman-turned-Minnesota-Senate-candidate Al Franken. “His enablers have to go with him, and top on that list is [Senator and Franken opponent] Norm Coleman.” (Other Minnesota Democrats have been less civil, nicknaming Coleman “Bushboy.”)
But no Republican has come in for the pin-the-love treatment as badly as John McCain. Independent-expenditure ads label him “McSame” and Barack Obama’s first negative ad of his own depicts Bush planting a kiss on the top of McCain’s head, as though McCain was Bush’s especially talented golf caddy.
The problem is, people aren’t buying it. Coleman—a moderate—is watching his numbers steadily climb in Minnesota, and McCain—who’s bucked Bush on climate change and his fellow GOPers on immigration—is far ahead of where he ought to be, given the climate. But it’s even worse than that. Running against the Republican Party of three years ago sends the message that the candidates themselves are brilliant, unassailable, bulletproof, save for the little (R) next to their names. Do Dems really want to cede McCain the point that, in his heart of hearts, he’s the most honorable pol since Winston Churchill, save for a few rotten associates?
We’re in a realigning time. South Carolinians are turning out to vote for Obama, and New Hampshirites have gone nuts for McCain. The word “liberal” is losing its poison power, and the name “George W. Bush” may be, too—a function of sheer weariness with the last eight years. But if old campaign formulas are wearing out, it’s hard to see what the new ones should be. Is the GOP turning soft? Will Democrats get too populist? How do you run against parties that are shifting hues like chameleons before your very eyes?
So, a suggestion: Run against the candidate. I know, I know, Campaigning 101 teaches us this approach can be naïve. But instead of painting folks like Cazayoux, Childers or Obama as scary radicals, what about airing the more valid complaint that they’re actually timid politicians who don’t seem sure of what they really believe? How about asking what exactly Norm Coleman has done for Minnesotans lately? And McCain—whether or not he shares Bush’s defects, he’s got downsides aplenty of his own, not the least of which is his recent flip-flopping on taxes, torture and oil drilling. Dress McCain up like Sam Graves’ disco queens and depict him twisting and turning with the beat. Those terrible dancers just might have a use after all.
Eve Fairbanks is associate editor at The New Republic.