Of the many talents that Romney’s chief strategist Stuart Stevens can boast—and I tried to hit them all in my recent profile—the most relevant to the campaign is his gift for negative ads. As I report in the piece, Stevens’s penchant for the attack ad is such that he even advised going negative on Romney while working for John McCain in 2007. “You have to keep your foot on his throat,” was his mantra, according to one McCain aide.
Thus far in this election cycle, Stevens’s most controversial attack ad was this one, featuring an out-of-context quote from Barack Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” (Obama was actually quoting a McCain aide at a campaign appearance in 2008.) Stevens and the Romney campaign were caught off guard by the intense backlash to the spot, which, I argue, demonstrated the influence of the liberal-industrial-complex that’s grown up over the last decade (a development I applaud, for what it's worth). Stevens’s shop also recently released this ad playing off of Obama’s Al Green cover at a Harlem fundraiser in January. (I happened to find the ad pretty effective.)
So what is Stevens’s philosophy of negative ads? How does such an accomplished hatchet man justify his craft? Below is Stevens discoursing on the subject during a 1995 appearance on “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher, in which he defends, among other things, the Willie Horton ad that devastated Michael Dukakis. The discussion takes a somewhat surprising and dramatic turn after the commercial break, so it’s worth watching until the end: