- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington buzzed last week about the MoveOn.org ad slandering Gen. David Petraeus and his report on progress in the Iraq war. The campaign’s nasty rhetoric and inflammatory charges sparked a series of debates and accusations accomplishing exactly what the antiwar group wanted: additional free press coverage.

This advertising tempest is an apparition of the ghosts of campaigns to come. Expect more of the same — or worse — from a variety of newly formed political groups organized as a direct result of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Commonly called McCain-Feingold, it is a law that crippled political parties and unleashed a new Wild West in American politics.

Indeed, the extra media attention for the MoveOn.org message far exceeded the original buy. It’s what folks in the strategic communications business call anearned media windfall. Using incendiary message content induces the media to focus on the tactics behind the advertising campaign. With the high-octane press coverage, traditional advertising rating points no longer apply, and the media campaign thrusts ahead with an afterburner effect. Think Harry and Louise or the Swift Boat Veterans, both examples of how the media’s interest in exploring the tale behind the story improved the gas mileage of the original advertising dollars spent.

But last week’s mudslinging moved to another level of coarseness. And expect this arms race of incivility to increase as we approach the 2008 election. Money that used to flow into the coffers of various national political organizations, like the Democratic National Committee (DNC) or Republican National Committee (RNC), now gushes liberally into 527 organizations like MoveOn.org.

These new entities lack the accountability of political parties. They can make charges and accusations that would discredit the DNC or RNC. National political parties are still closely connected to elected officials — such as governors, senators and members of Congress. And these links serve as a constraint not present with the new entities empowered by campaign finance reform, which limited the flow of funds into political parties and how they spent it. Did any politician call on the president of MoveOn.orgto pull down these ads? No, these groups and their leaders are not very visible, living in the shadows of American politics. Elected officials or party chiefs are a lot easier to identify and hold responsible for their statements and actions.

The demands of the new media age also conspire with the tactics of unrestricted political mudslingers. “In a world with a wealth of information there is a poverty of attention,” former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman is quoted as saying in Mark Halperin and John F. Harris’ book, “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008.” How do you break through an environment in which communications channels are so fragmented? Cable and satellite channels and blogs all compete for a few moments of Americans’ time and interest. Audaciousness — a kind of media shock and awe — is now both a tool and ally of the modern-day political tactician. The 527 organization becomes the delivery vehicle to break through the clutter. And the more provocative the message, the sharper the tip of the communications spear.

So, if the tactic works, and there are no longer any party constraints, it’s easy to see why we should expect more of the same — or worse. Political money is fungible. Dollars blocked at the doors of national political parties due to new legal barriers don’t just evaporate. They always find a new home, and rich Democrats gladly pay the mortgage. They have been particularly adept at organizing entities like MoveOn, America Coming Together and the Media Fund. As Matt Bai of the New York Times writes in his new book, “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics,” in 2004 two uber-wealthy liberals alone, George Soros and Peter Lewis, who used to bankroll the Democratic Party, gave an astounding $20 million to these 527s.

Without the decency checks and accountability of national political parties, these activities will expand. As 2008 approaches and the tide of vitriol rises, get a ready for a flood of nasty ads and other new political tactics that will further transform electoral discourse into a tabloid freak show. These ads may be “approved” by the sponsoring organization, but they were enabled by McCain-Feingold.

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