Friday, October 14, 2005

Anatomy of a Smear

I want to expand on Stirling's post about the Republicans' "Hitler ad" in Virginia's gubernatorial race, to provide readers outside Virginia more background on the story. I wrote earlier this year that Virginia politics are held up as a national bellwether, because of our proximity to DC (and thus major media as well as pundits with time on their hands); because, just like NJ, we hold our state elections and most notably our gubernatorial elections on the "off" or odd-numbered years; and because Republicans take advantage of these factors to prototype and test-drive both campaign and legislative strategies in Virginia. Why should you care about an '05 campaign ad in Virginia? Because what happens to Virginia this year happens to you in '06.

Long before Bush fils "swift boated" John Kerry in 2004, Bush père and Republican hatchet-man Lee Atwater attacked Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis with ads about an escaped-felon named William Horton Jr in 1988. This week in Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore just Willie Horton-ed Democrat Tim Kaine. And, unless Kaine's response is better than Dukakis's was, he's lost the race for Governor.

Horton Ad Timeline
  • As Governor of Massachusetts (1975-1979, 1983-1991), Michael Dukakis vetoed a 1976 bill that would abolish furlough for inmates convicted of first-degree murder. Dukakis supported the furlough program as a method of rehabilitation.
  • While Dukakis was governor in 1986, convicted murderer William R. Horton Jr. was released as part of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program but did not return. He went on to commit assault, rape, and car theft before being recaptured in 1987.
  • During the 1988 Democratic Presidential Primary, Senator Al Gore raised the general issue of the furlough program.
  • In 1988, after Dukakis won the Democratic Presidential Primary, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush repeatedly brought up the Horton case in campaign speeches. (The Republicans redubbed Horton, who had always gone by his full name of William, as "Willie.")
  • Late in the campaign cycle, both the Bush campaign and an external attack surrogate group ran fearmongering ads with strong racist tones using Horton to attack Dukakis. [Watch the Horton ad here.]
  • The ads generated extensive free media coverage as theywas discussed in the news. An analysis of network news coverage in 1988 found that newscasts ran segments from the "Revolving Door" ad 10 times in October and November, making it the most frequently-aired commercial of the campaign. Overall, 22 segments about Bush's crime ads were rebroadcast during the news, compared with four for Dukakis's ads. Only once was the deceptive information from Bush's crime ads challenged by reporters.
  • Hoping voters would dismiss the attacks as unfair, Dukakis refused to counterattack until (too) late in the campaign.
  • The Dukakis campaign finally ran an about a Hispanic murderer named Angel Medrano who murdered a pregnant mother of two while on furlough from a federal, rather than state, prison, the idea being that this would reflect negatively on Bush, who was the sitting Vice-President. The ad notoriously flopped.
  • The final nail in Dukakis' coffin was his response on capital punishment in the Oct 13, 1988 candidate debate. When the moderator asked Dukakis, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis replied coolly, "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life," and explained his stance. Dukakis' answer lacked the emotion needed for a question in which he was forced to consider his wife's death.
  • Bush overcame Dukakis's 17% lead to win the election, and the Horton ads went down in campaign history as textbook attack ads for mobilizing voters by playing to their basest fears.
  • Note the collection of classic Democratic fatal flaws that combine here:

    1. The Dukakis campaign was already aware, thanks to Al Gore, that the furlough program might be a campaign issue. Even without Gore, the onus for thorough, meticulous self-research lies on the campaign. The Bush team was certainly successful in finding the same information in their opposition research. The Dukakis team knew that the furlough program was a potential weak point and they failed to prepare in advance.

    2. The Dukakis team was not prepared to go on the attack against Bush--at least not effectively.

    3. The Dukakis team did not have attack surrogates in place. (In fairness, the Bush campaign pioneered the questionably-legal coordination of attack surrogates in 1988. However, fast forward to Kerry v Swift Boats in 2004, and you will see that the Democrats still have not learned this lesson. Hell, it's only been 17 years now.)

    4. The Dukakis team failed to "own the issue" or "frame the debate" and turn the racism of the ads against Bush. Thus, the media coverage of the ads largely served to promote the Bush campaign.

    5. Dukakis tried to fight emotion with logic--both in his ads, and in his debate response. It never works.

    Back to 2005. Virginia Republicans are essentially replaying the Bush/Dukakis/Horton episode to attack Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine about his views on capital punishment. Compare the Virginia timeline:

    1. In December, 2004, the Republican Jerry Kilgore for Governer campaign announced they had hired Scott Howell for their media strategist. Howell was previously media strategist on the Saxby Chambliss campaign, that attacked the patriotism of incumbent Congressman, war veteran and multiple-amputee Max Cleland in ads which featured Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

    Translation The Kaine campaign could not receive a clearer sign that the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial contest would be negative and nasty, nor would Republican attacks be constrained by the truth. They could expect to be "Hortoned." They had almost a year of advance notice in which to prepare.

    2. In January 2005, many observers including the Richmond Times-Dispatch predicted that the death penalty would be a key issue in the governor's race.

    Translation The death penalty issue had to be on the Kaine campaign radar--from their media watch, their self-research, and not least of all their common sense. (In fact, the Kaine campaign's research team is reputed to be excellent.)

    3. Kaine seems to have internalized the Republican- and DLC-driven misdirections of 2004 that Democrats need to frame their arguements in terms of religious values. From the outset of the 2005 campaign, Kaine chose to make his religion a center point. Kaine's website bio, for example, discusses his missionary work, and his belief that education is key to ensuring everyone can realize "their God-given potential in life." He highlights his religious beliefs in the Faith and Family section of his site's Issues page, where he also states he holds a faith-based opposition to abortion.

    Translation In making his personal religious beliefs a major focus of the campaign, Kaine opened himself up to attacks on those beliefs. The campaign's job was to prepare counter-attacks for the inevitable.

    4. Kilgore refused to support Kaine's clean campaign pledge.

    Translation (Does this feel like the Amityville horror yet?) I don't know how Kilgore could make his intentions to go negative any clearer.

    5. Kaine mops up the floor with Kilgore in their 3-part fall debate series. Kaine also closes on Kilgore's early lead in the polls to a statistical dead heat.

    Translation When you are behind or losing ground in the polls, especially this close to an election date, you go negative.

    6. Days after the final debate, Kilogore reveals his attack ads.

    (Incidentally, this is the same time in the campaign cycle that Bush Sr. ran the Horton ads. If you are going to go negative in a campaign, the idea is attack as late in the campaign as possible to minimize your opponent's opportunity to respond. If Kilgore is going this negative, this early, it should mean he has more attacks up his sleeves. Virginians can brace to see an even uglier attack come out of the Kilgore campaign on the last weekend of the campaign.)

    The Richmond Times-Dispatch has a summary of "Stanley" ad which makes the Hitler reference, here. You can also watch the ad here.

    The Ad bears a striking resemblance to the Swift Boat ads attacking John Kerry. (I have heard that the same media firm that made the Swift Boat ads made the attack ads for Kilgore, although I haven't been able to verify that from other sources yet.) The ad features Stanley Rosenbluth speaking against a black background. Rosenbluth is the founder of a death penalty advocacy group, a Republican campaign contributor, and he has a long association with Kilgore.

    Rosenbluth's son and daughter-in-law were killed in 1993 by their coke dealer, Mark Sheppard. In the ad, Rosenbluth attacks Kaine for acting as Sheppard's lawyer. Rosenbluth also claims that "Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty." The ad, paid for and authorized by the Kilgore campaign, attempts to make Kaine look soft on crime and implies that his religious beliefs make him unfit for Governor.

    Debunking the Lies

    1. Kilgore attacks Due Process

    The ad tries to fault Kaine for representing Mark Sheppard. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine's law firm, Mezzulo & McCandlish, was appointed by the court to represent Sheppard in an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. One of the firm's junior lawyers was the lead attorney and Kaine helped him. They argued that Sheppard's right to equal protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution had been violated. Kaine has helped represent in total three murderers in death-row cases. And, in all three cases, his involvement was as court-appointed counsel. Given that Jerry Kilgore is a former Virginia Attorney General, his attack on Kaine's courtroom work as an appointee of the state Supreme Court is beyond cynical. (Kilgore has, predictably, tried to side step the ad's implication that death row inmates should not receive legal counsel, calling Kaine an "activist defense attorney.") In short, Kilgore is smearing Kaine for his public service and attacking the concept of due process--and trying to make Kaine look immoral for acting as a Supreme Court-appointed lawyer.

    2. The Hitler Lie

    Kaine never said it. In fact, he said the *exact opposite.*

    Kilgore took the quote from a Kaine interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 25. You can read the whole text or listen to an audio version here .
    You couldn’t conceive of a case where a person, because of his behavior and criminal conduct, deserved the death penalty? What about Adolf Hitler? Do you think he should be executed? Should have been executed?

    KAINE: Well –

    Josef Stalin? Idi Amin?

    KAINE: You know, the — when you say “deserve.” I mean, it’s — God grants life and God should take it away. Horrible, heinous things deserve incredible punishment? You bet. God grants life, God should take it away. That’s my religious belief. And — except in the, you know, kind of rare instances. Self-defense. I mean, a person who — you know, who kills somebody in self defense, or — or a nation that — that wages a just war, that is essentially to defend itself or — or others, that would be an exception. But –

    Your conviction is so deep that you cannot name one person in history, who because of his malefactions and criminal behavior, deserved the death penalty?

    KAINE: No, I — again, the way I answered your question is — they may deserve — yeah. They may deserve it. Of course they may, for doing something heinous. They don’t deserve to live in civilized society. They deserve the death penalty. I just — you know, I look at the world. Most nations have decided not to have a death penalty. And — and many are very safe. I don’t think — I don’t think it’s needed to be safe.

    Kaine made the typical Democratic mistake of trying to give a nuanced answer. However, his reply to the Hitler question is clear. Here's the short version for the attention-impaired:
    Q: You couldn’t conceive of a case where a person, because of his behavior and criminal conduct, deserved the death penalty? What about Adolf Hitler? Josef Stalin? Idi Amin?
    A: They deserve the death penalty.
    In other words, the Kilgore campaign is telling an outright lie.

    3. Who's Soft on Crime?

    In Republican campaign politics, it is predictable that Kilgore would attack Kaine's record on crime--because Kaine's record is excellent, while Kilgore's own record is questionable.

    As Mayor of Richmond, Tim Kaine cut Richmond's homicide rate by 55% by implementing the NRA-endorsed Project Exile program that toughens penalties for criminals who use guns. As Lieutenant Governor, Kaine fought for the 2004 state budget that raised law enforcement salaries and invested over $100 million in new money for public safety.

    Jerry Kilgore, on the other hand, opposed the public safety funds in the 2004 budget as Attorney General. And, when Kilgore was responsible for the state prison system as Secretary of Public Safety, prison escapes went up 300% from the previous two years, then went back down after he left office. At the same time, confirmed cases of children being beaten into unconsciousness by guards at at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center prompted a 1996 investigation by the Department of Justice. (Before Kilgore's tenure, Virginia’s juvenile-justice system had been considered a national model.)

    The "Stanley" ad is based on lies and misrepresentations. However, it makes a powerful emotional appeal to voters who are unlikely to check all the facts on their own. Ultimately, as one Virginia pundit put it, Kilgore's ad treats voters as if they are "dumb as stumps."

    The Kaine Response

    The Kaine campaign had just been Hortoned. They had every reason to expect the attack to come. They had almost a year to prepare.

    You can watch Kaine's response ad here.

    The ad shows a talking-head shot of Kaine in a library, with melancholy piano music in the background. Kaine looks worked-up and anxious--not in command of the situation. His voice is in his upper register, giving an impression of panic. The inflections are not well-coached. He says:
    "I'm Tim Kaine, candidate for governor. I approved this ad to set the record straight.

    My faith teaches life is sacred. That's why I personally oppose the death penalty.

    But I take my oath of office seriously. And I'll enforce the death penality.

    As governor, I'll carry out death sentences handed out by Virginia juries...

    ...because that's the law."
    [It is hard to analyze the ad without sarcasm. It is hard this week to be a Virginia Democrat without crying. I will do my very best.]

    It seems that the Kaine campaign has never heard of Dukakis, Horton, Kerry, or the Swift Boat vets. At the very least, the ad demonstrates that Kaine learned nothing from the way Dukakis and Kerry mishandled their own smears and went on to resounding losses. In fact, Kaine's stunning failure mirrors Dukakis almost 100%:

    1. Despite a good research team and a year of advance warning, the Kaine campaign did not have an effective counter-attack prepared.
    2. Kaine did not respond with an effective attack on Kilgore.
    3. Kaine shows no evidence so far of effective attack surrogates.
    4. Kaine's response fails to "own the issue" or "frame the debate" and turn the the ads against Kilgore.
    5. Thus, the media coverage of the ads largely served to promote the Kilgore line that Kaine is soft on the death penalty. Regardless of the fairness or balance of media coverage, by definition news stories are compelled to parrot Kilgore's charge and propogate his contention that Kaine's position on the death penalty would make him a bad governor. (I have also been extremely impressed at the effort the media has made to be fair and objective in the coverage of the ads.)
    6. Kaine tries to fight emotion with logic. He responds to an emotional ad by falling into the Democratic sandmire of "trying to explain." It didn't work for Dukakis, it didn't work for Kerry, and it isn't working for Kaine.
    7. The only missing piece is Dukakis' vulcan answer on the hypothetical murder of his wife. Tim Kaine would be well advised to have a more compelling answer for the same kind of question ready, and be braced to be asked by a reporter or a Republican plant in a campaign event audience in the days to come.

    In the words of Virginia blogger Waldo Jaquith, "Kaine showed up to a knife fight with a note from his mother."

    Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

    The Kaine campaign has missed their window of opportunity with this week's news cycle. Virginia Democrats can only hope that Kaine is working on a stronger response timed for Monday's news deadlines.

    The Kaine campaign does have the rudiments of a strong response up at their secondary site, The Real Jerry Kilgore. You can view the ad, entitled "jail break," here. However, the ad isn't mentioned on Kaine's main campaign site, nor does it seem destined for media distribution. It is not likely to reach a fraction of the voters who see Kilgore's Hitler ad.

    Waldo Jaquith has some great suggestions on how Kaine should respond:
    1. Stop describing Tim Kaine as “Roman Catholic.” I don’t want to hear that phrase again. He’s “Christian.” He has a “Christian opposition to the death penalty.” He needs to quote scripture and talk about the role that Christ plays in his own life. In short, he needs to witness.
    2. Rebuttal: Jerry Kilgore is anti-Christian. There are two things that should drive this point home:
      1. A press conference ASAP that features just one black preacher. (No Catholics. No Episcopalians. Baptist. Southern Baptist.) I want a preacher to weep, wail, and testify about growing up under Jim Crow, about growing up under oppression, about how the United States is a Christian nation, Virginia is a Christian state, and yet she is being attacked for the crime of being a Christian by none other than “that Kilgore character.” There must be tears. There must be fear that, under Kilgore, Virginia will become an anti-Christian state.
      2. A sixty second commercial featuring a black preacher, dressed to the nines. Purple suit, cane, white hat. I want him to preach full-out, with sweat flying, eyes closed, voice warbling and breaking into song when possible. I want him to preach about Christ, forgiveness, religious freedoms, and mention just once, at the end, while looking straight into the camera, wide-eyed, that “this Kilgore character” thinks that a Christian isn’t fit to lead Virginia and then spit in disgust. It should look like Errol Morris made it.
      Painting Kilgore as anti-Christian can be extremely powerful. If Kilgore has mentioned religion in his race, I haven’t heard it. But I expect most people who will be voting in this race know that Kaine was a missionary in Honduras. (Kaine:missionary in Honduras::Edwards:son of a mill worker)
    3. Change the topic as soon as possible. Tim Kaine can’t win the death penalty debate. It requires too much education of the public. Talk about something else. Potential response ads include:
      1. A two-minute-long ad in the style of Oprah’s guest-introduction biographical videos, with the interview subject being one of the many children who were tortured at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. Tears, sense of helplessness/hopelessness, story about the federal probe into Beaumont and the Secretary of Public Safety obstructing that probe for political reasons. The money shot is the revelation that Kilgore was that Secretary of Public Safety, and the subject asking, directly to Kilgore, “Why did you let them hurt me? Why?”
      2. A three-minute long ad, in black and white, featuring one of these right-wing loonies that we’ve all found ourselves sitting next to at dinner parties every so often, the ones that are so crazy you wonder how they manage to have an otherwise normal life. Sit him down in front of a camera for a couple of hours, gain his confidence, and get him to talk about how much he hates gays, blacks, Jews and Catholics, how he thinks that President Bush is a part of the Illuminati and bringing about the New World Order. At some point, get him to say that he plans to vote for Kilgore. Edit cleverly. Air once.
      3. A series of balls-out ads attacking Kilgore’s sexuality and manhood. This is, obviously, Kilgore’s single biggest weak point — and it’s completely fair game now. Show a series of clips of Kilgore talking, walking, and being interviewed, edited for the most embarrassing bits. (Think John Kerry throwing a football or going goose-hunting.) Accuse him of being a weak little sissy boy who couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag; somebody who can’t keep Virginians safe. Present Tim Kaine as a virile, manly leader who impregnates women with his mere glance; show him chopping wood, taking a swig out of a bottle of Bud, and roping a calf. In short, make Kilgore a laughingstock.
    The plan Waldo outlines is exactly what it takes to neutralize Republican smear attacks. Tim Kaine should really have Waldo on retainer. (So should a lot of other Virginia Democrats--he's worth it.) We'll have to cross our fingers that Kaine reads Waldo's blog before Monday.

    Final Thoughts

    My Virginia blogging colleagues have done a great job of covering the story of Jerry Kilgore's Hitler ad. (See list of Virginia blog posts on the story below.) To be honest, I have been reluctant to wade into the conversation. In fact, I've written very little this year about Virginia state politics, especially the state-wide races. Most of what I have had to say is critical, so I've chosen to keep my comments to myself. (I already have a rap as a "bad democrat" because I don't tow the party line.) But, Stirling opened this can of worms and I took the bait (as it were), so I'm not going to pull any punches.

    The Kaine campaign's response is pitiful and unacceptable.

    The stakes in Virginia's elections this year are extremely high. Republicans control the state house and senate. The Virginia Republican has grown progressively more right-wing, and has repeatedly purged mainstream Republicans from the party. In the 2005 legislative session, Virginia Republicans introduced bills to permit religious activities in schools and public places (HJ 537) ; to criminalize birth control for minors (HB 1807); to guarantee legal rights to "enjoyment of life" for foetuses and zygotes (HB 1918); to ban gay-straight alliance clubs in high schools (HB 2868); and to prohibit same sex couples from adopting (HB 2921). It is critical for Virginia Democrats to keep gaining ground in order to hold right-wing Republican zealots in check.

    There is no question that Kaine is the better choice for Governor. However, the Kaine campaign is failing to make that case to the voters.

    The Kaine and Kilgore campaigns have both been sophmoric and uninspired. Early in the spring, they devolved into name-calling and minor mudslinging more appropriate to a student council election. They have both dodged real discussions of Virginia's transportation problems. Both campaigns have proposed outrageously expensive policy ideas without suggestion how they might come up with the funds. No one has talked about raising taxes--although Kilgore claims he will cut taxes without explaining how he'll make up the budget shortfall. Collectively, the campaigns have been underwhelming and painful to watch. (In contrast, current Democratic Governor Mark Warner's 2001 rockstar campaign was a thing of beauty.)

    I might have an iota more compassion if Virginia's state elections were held in regular years. In that case, the Kaine campaign would be competing with campaigns up and down the ballot in 49 other states for campaign staff. But, this year, the only competition is New Jersey. Virginia and New Jersey have access to the top campaign staff from across the country. If this team is the best that Kaine can build--that doesn't speak well of Kaine's leadership or management abilities. (The same charge, of course, can be levelled against Kilgore.)

    Much has been made this week in Virginia blogs and media about the fact that Kilgore lied; that he misrepresented Kaine; that the Gods-and-Guns party is attacking Kaine for being religious. That's not the story. We already know that Republicans are lying hypocrites who will stoop to any depths in order to win.

    The real issue here is that Kaine may well have lost the election this week, with his clumsy reponse to Kilgore's attacks. Kaine had every opportunity to anticipate and prepare for this, and he still fumbled. Virginia Democrats deserve better than that.

    I really hope that Kaine's people turn this around, and fast.

    And, I hope that the other Democrats around the country who are watching finally learn their lesson, and neutralize Republican attacks brutally and ruthlessly in the 2006 elections. Because you know the attacks are coming, you know exactly how they work, and you know how to counter them.

    And, you know the consequences if you fail.

    I'm sure this list is not exhaustive, and I apologize in advance especially to any Virginia bloggers I may have overlooked. If you can make additions to this list, please add your recommendations in the comments.

    Further Reading - Virginia Blogs

    750 Volts
    More on Kilgore's Despicable Hitler Ad
    Going Nuclear
    FCDC Blog
    Jerry's List
    Liberal Rage
    Shameful GOP Swiftboating of Kaine
    Raising Kaine
    What Next, Jerry? Stalin and Mao?
    The Hitler Strategy
    More on Stanley Rosenbluth and “Hitler”
    Why Does Jerry Kilgore Hate Christianity?
    Godwin's Law, Adolph Hitler, and Jerry Kilgore
    “A Knife Fight” - Time to Go “Balls Out!”
    Scott Howell Rule #302: When You Lose a Debate, Start the Swift Boat Ads
    South Now
    Virginia Opinion Makers Suggest Kilgore Backlash
    Kilgore Delivers Kaine His Swift Boat
    Times Dispatch Blog
    This week,the campaigns focus on one issue
    Attack Ad Cause a Stir
    Waldo Jaquith
    Editorial Boards Line Up Against Kilgore
    Kilgore Caught: Kaine Never Said It
    Another Analysis of the Hitler Ad
    Kaine's Response to the Hitler Ad
    Post Slams Kilgore on Hitler Ad
    Kaine Unveils Hitler Ad
    Further Reading - Media
    Kilgore Ads Seek To Divide Democrats, Washington Post, Oct 13.
    Kaine says Hitler ads show an ''outrageous prejudice'', The Virginian-Pilot, Oct 13.
    Campaign Detours to the Low Road, Virginian-Pilot Editoria, Oct 13.
    Death Penalty Demagoguery, Roanoke Times Editorial, October 13
    Kilgore, Kaine spar on Death Penalty, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Oct 13.
    Kilgore's Ads Make No One Look Good, Washington Post Column, October 13
    Death Penalty Smear, Washington Post Editorial, Oct 12.
    Kaine attacked on Death Penalty, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Oct 12.