According to a story in the upcoming issue of Newsweek, both Barack Obama and John McCain are expecting the Swift Boat campaign that was carried out against John Kerry in 2004 to look like child’s play compared to the general election this fall.
Both campaigns have vowed to run a mudslinging free general election, but the problem is that neither of them can stop so called 527 groups from spending their own money to say whatever they want. If history is a guide, it is much more likely that the dirt will come from Republican affiliated groups as this has been a conservative tactic since Michael Dukakis was “Willie Hortoned” in 1988.
According to Newsweek, the McCain team is already digging through Obama’s record and looking for weaknesses that can’t be considered race baiting, or hitting below the belt. They want to define Obama as a “super duper liberal.” Even if both candidates try their best to run a clean campaign, they can’t stop the 527s from turning the fall into a bloodbath of negativity.
As one anonymous McCain advisor said, “It’s going to be Swift Boat times five on both sides … The candidates will both do their best publicly to mute it. But in a close race, I don’t see how to shut that down.”
Two things are going to make 2008 different from 2004. This time swift boating is nothing new. Obama watched John Kerry and his lack of reaction to the attacks and learned that a campaign has to respond quickly to smears. Secondly, Obama is going to have tons of money which he can use to immediately run ads to counter swift boat attacks.
The cash strapped McCain will be hard pressed to counter any outside negative ads run against him. It will be ironic if McCain does get swift boated because it was the campaign finance reform that he co-sponsored opened the door for the 527 groups to blossom.
A 527 group does not spend money to promote the election or endorsement of a specific candidate, there for they are not subject to federal regulation. Not all 527s are bad. Many run issue based ads that try to raise the awareness of voters, but it is the groups who use their status to carry out unregulated attacks that worry most campaigns.
I think that Obama will be able to handle the 527s and I do wish that we could have a general election campaign where the candidates would focus on the issues, but those seem to only exist in high school civics classes.
There is too much outside money, and too much power at stake for any presidential campaign to stay clean. You can bet your house that sometime this fall, one of these candidates will trail, and they will go negative. This is just a reality of modern American politics.