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Steve Schmidt's Not-so-new Low

Laurence Lowe is a senior editor at Triple Canopy whose articles have appeared in GQ, The New York Times, and n+1.

In my TNR profile of John McCain's then-recently installed chief of campaign operations Steve Schmidt, I briefly alluded to a lowly tactic the message guru used back in 1996, when he sent out 60,000 'sex surveys' that attempted to portray then-Congressman Tim Roemer as someone who was using health surveys to pry into the sex lives of adolescents. Schmidt was 25 years old at the time and just getting started in politics. But after yesterday's release of a deeply misleading, McCain campaign-approved ad depicting Senator Barack Obama as an advocate for "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarteners, that episode in Schmidt's history is worth re-visiting.

Schmidt's candidate--an Indiana state senator named Joe Zakas--was trailing in the polls when, one week before election day, Schmidt seized on Roemer's vote for a July 1991 amendment to produce a mailer labeled "Tim Roemer's Sex Survey." (One of the 60,000 Indiana 3rd congressional district voters who received the mailer described it as "two pictures of Roemer, two gays embracing, a cover of the current Playboy and--between the gays and the Playmate--a cover of the Bible. Something bad about his values, I guess.") That amendment was overwhelmingly approved in the House, and the questions that Zakas would not say aloud at a press conference because of their "graphic sexual nature" had to pass both an ethics review board and a peer review board before they could be included in what were, after all, health surveys.

From South Bend Tribune, November 6, 1996 (only available on Nexis, so no link):

Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for Zakas, said the mailings, though strongly worded, were designed in part to create "some controversy in the final week" and force Roemer to engage Zakas directly in a campaign give-and-take.

Schmidt said he never saw a campaign in which the incumbent refrained as Roemer did from hitting back. He said the strategy was a risk for Roemer and whether it paid off would remain uncertain until the votes were tallied.

"We never went after his personality," Schmidt said. He said all of the attacks were based on Roemer's voting record.

Roemer contended that the survey mailing was "for the most part sleazy and highly inaccurate."

Fast forward twelve years. We're two months out from Election Day, and Schmidt's candidate is running neck-and-neck with his opponent. On those two counts (and too many others to name) the circumstances are quite different. Yet Schmidt has just authorized an ad whose brazenly misleading message is strikingly similar in conception to the sex surveys.

After running through a number of suspect attacks on Obama's education record, the ad ends with a graphic citing a vote he cast in March 2003, followed by a picture of Obama that can only be described as creepy and the narrator asking: "Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners. Learning about sex before learning to read?" Here it is:

The legislation in question, though, was actually an amendment to pre-existing sex-education standards. It even included an opt-out clause for parents. When asked about the amendment last year, Obama said that sex education should be "age appropriate" for kindergarteners, and his campaign later released a statement saying that the framers of the legislation were thinking along the lines of a component on "inappropriate touching." But never mind all that: The McCain campaign is strongly implying that Barack Obama would subject a kindergartner to a "comprehensive sex education" in lieu of reading lessons.

Even for a campaign that, under Steve Schmidt's leadership, has sought to associate its opponent with Paris Hilton and has recently been playing particularly fast and loose with the truth, this ad represents a dismal new low.

--Laurence Lowe