Saturday, June 21, 2008

Swift Boat Veterans Against McCain

Aside from a few mass email forwards, unofficial Republican attacks on Obama have been surprisingly absent from this year's presidential race. While "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was unveiled in early May of the 2004 election cycle, and had ads on the air by mid-June, there are apparently no well-funded groups gearing up for 2008. Ready to Attack Obama, if Some Money Arrives, from today's New York Times, summarizes the situation:

No major independent effort to help Senator John McCain’s campaign has materialized. Although Republican operatives say something will eventually develop, alarm has spread among many, especially after Mr. Obama’s announcement on Thursday on public financing, raising the prospect that he will wield an enormous financial advantage over Mr. McCain in the fall.

Many reasons explain the absence of a serious independent effort at this point, Republican strategists said. Many wealthy donors who might be in a position to finance a 527 group, named for the Tax Code section that covers them, or a similar independent effort that is free to accept unlimited contributions are wary this time because of the legal problems that dogged many such groups after the 2004 election.

Major donors are said to be uncertain of Mr. McCain’s chances as Republicans face a decidedly unfavorable climate in the fall. Lingering, as well, is the possibility that they may anger Mr. McCain, who has a record of campaign finance reform and has in the past been critical of such groups.

Politico offers a deeper analysis of why the money hasn't materialized and won't be coming from the same sources as last time. A piece of the apparent poverty stems from preparations set in place during Hillary Clinton's long presumptive nomination, which soaked up both funds and energy in the production of work that cannot easily be used against Obama. Furthermore, it appears that none of the big-name donors who supported "Swift Veterans" are taking a hand in this election. And why should they, considering McCain's open disgust with that side of politics?

But, in explaining the absence of any anti-Obama groups this time around, every individual interviewed for this story cited the same central reason: a fear that their party’s nominee will publicly denounce them and hold a grudge.

“Both donors and operatives know how much [McCain] abhors these groups,” said John Weaver, the Arizona senator’s former chief strategist, referring to the independent groups that have thrived following passage of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. “If he is ultimately successful and any of these groups played a significant effort in electing him, many believe, probably rightfully, that they would be ostracized.”

Another GOP strategist said that McCain’s denunciation of a 501(c)(4) which aired an ad in South Carolina last November touting McCain when his resources were severely limited sent a chilling message to potential independent expenditure groups.

McCain issued a public statement at the time calling on the group, spearheaded by GOP adman Rick Reed, to “cease and desist.”

"Anyone who believes they could assist my campaign by exploiting a loophole in campaign finance laws is doing me and our country a disservice,” McCain said then.

He used even stronger language after that, saying at a Texas town hall meeting in late February that 527s “are distorting the entire political process and they need to be outlawed.”

However, as both articles note, McCain has been careful not to strongly criticize Obama attack groups for the last few months, saying that he will not play "referee" during the general election. It is also possible that Obama's massive predicted financial advantage will spur republican donations.

Nor is the lack of widespread attacks caused by a lack of trying, but merely a lack of funds. Floyd Brown of has put the following two ads online, and pledges more:

The first ad, in particular, would be scary on a national level. In spite of being thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, the rumor that Obama is a "secret Muslim" has endured for months and was cited in post-primary interviews with voters in states that Obama lost. Seeing "evidence" for the rumor on television could cement many voters' mistaken impression that Obama is lying about a Muslim past, and provide a way for certain voters to maintain racist preconceptions in a more socially acceptable, though still disgustingly bigoted, manner.

However, there is reason to think that a campaign based on ads like that won't be as effective as the "Swift Boat" attacks, which called into question a core aspect of Kerry's appeal in a way that was difficult for Kerry to directly address. Obama's charisma, his on- and off-line media advantage, and his willingness to confront racial issues and "smears" openly and directly make him fundamentally less vulnerable to these sort of attacks. In fact, I'm hoping that race will be as much of a shield for Obama as it is an under-the-table liability: many television companies may refuse to run ads with strong racial overtones for fear of legal or financial consequences, and any race-based attack has the potential to backfire tremendously against McCain. If this is the best they've got, they may be in serious trouble even if money does materialize.

Still, mass funding or no, there's going to be some outrageous mudslinging in the next few months, and it won't always be possible to control the damage. The only real solution Obama has is to run so effective a campaign that a few points lost to disinformation won't hurt. And on that front, even without that totally insane 6/18-6/19 Newsweek poll, he's off to a good start.

EDIT: OK, PS, this is just great.


  1. JUST read the NYT article-great to see your context for it. Great to read you here-

  2. Newsweek is outright irresponsible for posting that poll as if it were indicative of some major shift in voter opinion rather than a statistical anomaly. As with any experiment, the results of polls are subject to error that occasionally run well outside the calculated margin of error. Looking on RealClearPolitics it's easy to see how insane it is to try to play that off as some sort of huge breakthrough for Obama. That's a good catch, Nick.

    On a side note, I love this blog. And that matters because you see, for another month at least I could be loosely defined as a government employee, which means that this blog is LEGIT!


  3. Great post nick, and I'm hoping this is just one of many aspects of the conservative machine that will be slow/inactive due to McCain's nomination. We already saw the Rush Limbaugh/Hannity noise machine initially refuse to get behind him, and now it seems like now they've resorted to calling Obama Osama just to avoid their mentioning their own nominee.

    Regardless of a few dead enders, the left has coalesced around Obama, and no matter how much he allows the president to wire tap American citizens or pushes failed economic models, we (as well as the vast majority of democrats) - will organize and vote for him.

    We have spent the last 8 years understanding what's at stake, and how much cleaning up there is to be done. The republicans have had 8 years watching their philosophies on foreign and domestic policy fail spectacularly in every imaginable way. That doesn't really inspire you to go out an organize and vote for a guy most conservatives look at in the same way we look at Joe Lieberman.

    @Sam, glad you like the blog... and being legit was one of my goals in life, so it's nice to know that we've finally arrived!