Bile trumps substance in campaign ads

Guest Editorials
Are you ready for the onslaught?

Now that Michigan’s Feb. 28 presidential primary is unexpectedly important, the deluge of negative TV ads from Republican hopefuls is inevitable.

Most of the damage will likely come from two camps: The supporters of Mitt Romney, the quasi-hometown boy who seems to be his party’s front-runner but who just can’t close the deal; and Rick Santorum, the latest “not-Mitt” who has surged to the lead in some polls.

There will be blood, at least figuratively, and it’s already started.

The Santorum campaign has put together a 30-second ad that lampoons Romney as a “Rombo” who will try to smear Santorum with a barrage of costly ads.

It’s not an idle accusation. A so-called super PAC, funded and run by friends of Romney, poured millions of dollars into a carpet-bombing TV campaign that effectively doused the campaign of Newt Gingrich in Iowa. Gingrich, funded by a billionaire casino owner, responded in kind with a stunning win in South Carolina only to fade in Florida.

The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, is at it again in Michigan with an ad that unfairly and illogically criticizes Santorum for voting to raise the debt limit while a U.S. senator and for voting in favor of letting felons vote. (Santorum’s debt-raising vote was routine at the time and the bill he voted for would not let jailed convicts vote, but only those who had served their time, including those years on probation.)

Despite the smears that pro-Romney forces have spread, his campaign is playing the victim, as reported by

“Santorum,” said Romney campaign spokesperson Amanda Henneberg, “is a typical politician talking out of both sides of his mouth. He has been attacking Mitt Romney in public statements and in television ads for weeks, not vice versa.”

Forget for a moment that Romney supporters have indeed been attacking Santorum, what’s striking is that his campaign finds anything objectionable to a candidate talking out of both sides of his mouth. That’s Romney’s forte.

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney introduced a health-care plan that includes a mandate to purchase insurance that is strikingly similar to President Barack Obama’s plan that is so reviled as socialistic evil by core Republicans. Romney’s basic defense is that his plan was introduced by the state rather than the federal government — hardly the type of good vs. evil demarcation espoused by conservatives.

But it’s on a social issue — abortion — where Romney has perfected the role as flip-flopper.

In 1994, when he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, Romney, said, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.”

In 2002, in his run for governor, he said, “I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose, and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.”

By “honoring my word,” he apparently meant until he got the urge to run for president. By 2005, he was altering his position in an obvious attempt to gain favor with the pro-life forces in the Republican Party.

In his opposition to abortion, Santorum is rock-solid consistent.

It’s actually an interesting match-up. To get the nomination, the very pro-business Romney has to shed the dreaded moderate label. Santorum, while properly described as conservative on a number of issues key to his party, has more progressive spending leanings than might be obvious to the casual observer

If millions upon millions of dollars are going to be spent in Michigan this month, it would be helpful if the advertisements helped define the convictions of these candidates.

That’s a pipe dream, of course. The strategy will be to attack and destroy. Which is a shame.