According to press accounts, a gambling mogul has so far “invested” $35 million in the Republican campaign effort this year. And that’s just what we know about. In the wide open casino atmosphere of politics 2012 there could also be unlimited additional amounts contributed to organizations that will not even report their contributors until after the election. The sums involved are tremendous when compared to past campaign spending—$235 million, for example, has already been spent on television advertising designed to discredit the president’s signature health reform plan. Campaign 2012 will not only have the biggest price tag in history; it is sure to have the most seven- and eight-figure donors. Individuals and businesses can spend just about whatever they want. If they choose to, they can also easily be shielded from public view by a laundering they contributions through vehicles whose contributors can be completely anonymous.
Overall, Republicans will have a big edge in the no-limits contribution game this year and are likely to warp congressional races in their direction. But at the presidential level will outspending be the key to swamping the campaign effort of President Obama? Hard to say, but we have every reason to expect candidates at all levels to be the objects of large scale, sharply negative, attack ads.
There is an echo here of the past, albeit in a very different context.
During the 1950s as the “cold war “intensified, military and civilian analysts delved deeper into questions of how to thwart a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Most concluded that, with the advent of ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines, it would be practically impossible to defend the continental United States from devastating destruction. Many experts also agreed that it would financially and probably scientifically impractical to create an effective shield against an all-out attack—even if the technology required somehow became available. In this environment, it’s no surprise that gradually defense doctrine became centered on the idea that, even if a nuclear attack could not be repulsed, it could be deterred by the threat of massive retaliation. This argument contended that it was more achievable and efficient to create a force that could survive a first strike and still have the potency to respond with enough destruction to destroy the main adversary’s civilization. This doctrine of deterrence became known as Mutually Assured Destruction—or MAD.
Which brings us back to the state of politics today.
Under the new free for all spending conditions—created by a clueless and reliably partisan Supreme Court and feckless Federal Election Commission—campaigns are sure to have enough money to effectively diminish the reputations of an opponent. About $5 billion was spent in 2008. Expect expenditures to be north of $10 billion this year. And the lion’s share of that money will be spent on attack advertising. Like America’s nuclear doctrine in the 1950s, negative advertising provides more bang for the buck.
Negative ads work for a variety of reasons; they fill in the blanks for an electorate with disappointingly limited knowledge of candidates and they conform to the stereotypes of politicians. The news—let’s face, it—is not filled with examples of politicians doing good works. Further negative information is probably just more plausible than positive information, about which the public is skeptical.
Looking back at the MAD analogy, it would seem that the only remedy for this situation would be an agreement between the presidential candidates to avoid personal attack advertising and disown it when it is sponsored by the supporting pack of PACs. As with relations with the Soviet Union, such confidence building measures might provide a route to future reforms.
There is on one problem with the idea: it’s not going to happen. Imagine a MAD situation where both sides fire off all the missiles they can and you have a reasonable approximation of the current state of American political campaigns.
In other words the deterrent effect just isn’t part of the political process. There are no arms control agreements and no restraint in the face of what plainly is real damage to public trust and effective government. Instead, the name of the game is to accept the notion of mutually assured destruction not as a deterrent, but the inevitable result of parallel strategies. Hit the other guy fast and hard; get hit yourself in turn; and hope to emerge as the lesser evil.
During the Cold War, in a manic and scary way, MAD worked—although recently revealed details of the Cuban Missile Crisis provide evidence that it was, on that occasion, a close shave. In the frenzy of modern campaigning, no such standoff seems possible. Apparently it was easier to depend on the Soviets to behave rationally than it is for the two parties to find a way to work together.