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Is Mitt’s Willie Horton Ad Man Up To The Task?

It’s been noted by many that Mitt Romney’s task in Michigan is but a repeat of the one he faced in Florida and Iowa with Newt Gingrich: Confronted with a surging rival (in this case Rick Santorum), he must turn the guns of his “unaffiliated” SuperPAC (which raised more money, from only a handful of people, than his actual campaign last month) on the challenger hard enough to leave him smoldering in the dust by the time voters go to the polls. In Iowa and Florida, this meant a string of devastating anti-Gingrich ads from the SuperPAC, Restore Our Future, that went after Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac, his moment on the love seat with Nancy Pelosi, and much much more.

Which leads me to wonder: why has Restore Our Future so far come out with only weak tea to pour on Santorum? The PACs ads—which you can view herehere, here, and here—pretty much all revolve around Santorum's fondness for earmarks and his status as a Washington insider. Both of these things are true, but they are also fairly generic charges, lacking the specificity of Gingrich's $1.6 million haul from Freddie Mac. The ads also hit Santorum for voting to raise the debt limit five times, but surely many voters absorbed enough from the debt-ceiling fiasco this past summer to understand that for years voting to raise the debt limit was but a Washington formality. The closest the ads come to drawing any real blood is their cynical mention of Santorum’s having supported restoring voting rights to felons—a depressing bit of race-baiting coming from Mitt Romney, whose father led a walk-out from the 1964 national Republican convention over the party’s rejection of a civil rights plank.

The relative lameness of the attacks against Santorum is particularly curious given that the person producing the ads for Restore Our Future is none other than Larry McCarthy, who earned lifelong notoriety—and a steady supply of do-whatever-it-takes clients—by creating the Willie Horton ad against Mike Dukakis in 1988. If you haven’t already, be sure to read Jane Mayer’s terrific (and terrifically depressing) profile of McCarthy in last week’s New Yorker. In it, she explains that McCarthy is actually not all that innovative when it comes to the style of his ads—they “often have the crude look of a hastily assembled PowerPoint presentation. They feature hokey graphics—key criticisms are highlighted with neon-yellow stripes—and a heavy-handed use of black-and-white to lend a sinister cast to images.” What sets McCarthy apart, above all, is his utter lack of scruples, which stands out even in the moral desert of political advertising. Here’s one assignment he took on in 2010: 

Representative Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, fared worse. He was targeted by another McCarthy client, Americans for Job Security, a group that was founded, in 1997, with a million-dollar donation from the American Insurance Association. Public Citizen, the liberal reform group, filed a complaint with the F.E.C., calling it “a sham front group that would be better called Corporations Influencing Elections.” The F.E.C., deadlocked, took no action, but in Alaska state regulators forced the group to pay a twenty-thousand-dollar fine for operating as a corporate front that had “no purpose other than to cover various money trails.”*
In the summer of 2010, Etheridge ... found himself the victim of a video ambush. He was walking on Capitol Hill when two young men in suits approached him. One thrust a camera in his face and the other, holding a microphone, asked him whether he supported the “Obama agenda.” Taken aback, Etheridge demanded, “Who are you?” As Etheridge asked the question five times without getting an answer, he pushed the camera away and gripped his inquisitor.
Finally, the interviewer stammered, “I’m just a student, sir.”
“From?” Etheridge asked.
“The streets,” the interviewer answered.
Within days, a video of the confrontation, edited to make Etheridge seem unhinged, was posted on Andrew Breitbart’s conservative Web site, Big Government, under the headline “CONGRESSMAN ATTACKS STUDENT.” It went viral. Soon afterward, McCarthy inserted the video into an ad, called “Who Are You?,” in which people purporting to be from Etheridge’s district answered, “We’re your constituents,” and then accused Etheridge—inaccurately—of wanting to cut Medicare. It’s unclear who paid for the ad. Americans for Job Security avoids disclosing its funders by registering as a nonprofit trade association devoted to promoting “pro-paycheck” issues. It calls its revenue “membership dues,” and claims not to spend money on influencing elections. But, according to WRAL-TV news, in Raleigh, among the “pro-paycheck” projects its members paid for in 2010 was a three-hundred-and-sixty-thousand-dollar ad buy against Etheridge.
Etheridge narrowly lost the 2010 election to a nurse running with the support of Sarah Palin. The next day, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had previously denied a role, acknowledged that it was behind the ambush video. It’s unclear how the video made its way into McCarthy’s attack ad, but the committee is one of his clients.
“They wanted to deceive people,” Etheridge says. “I have no idea who was behind it. You don’t know who’s doing it. There’s no name and no face.” He argues, “It really undermines people’s faith in democracy. That’s what’s sad. Everyone pays a price for the big, unregulated, undocumented money.”

Romney brought McCarthy onto his team in 2008, and to his credit the candidate actually nixed one proposed ad, which would have attacked Mike Huckabee over a gubernatorial pardon gone wrong. This time, with McCarthy is operating within the SuperPAC, Romney has superficial deniability. So keep an eye on what comes out against Santorum in the days ahead. It could be that Santorum simply presents a lack of good targets even to a maestro like McCarthy—attacking his biggest vulnerability, his reactionary social views, would mean hitting him from the left on issues that Republican primary voters already distrust Romney on. It could be that Romney is constrained in going after Santorum’s lobbying—er, consulting—years in Washington by the fact that his own father George got his start as a lobbyist in Washington for Alcoa. (Though that didn't stop Romney from hitting Newt on that score.) Or it could be that McCarthy’s just holding the best for last. In any case, if you see more images of felons in orange jumpsuits next to Santorum’s face, you’ll know where they came from: Mitt’s Willie Horton man.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis