Newt and Negativity: Ceci N’est Pas Une Attack Ad

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When he took the stage Tuesday night in Iowa to try to put a smiling face on a 13-point disappointment, Newt Gingrich couldn’t help but grouse. After the requisite thank yous and hellos were out of the way, it took him eight words to get to the point. “I want to thank everybody who worked all fall,” he said, “particularly during the avalanche of negative ads.” These ads, and Newt’s indigestion about their effect on the political process, bracketed every rhetorical point.

This also was in a speech in which he called Ron Paul’s views “stunningly dangerous,”  and referred to Romney as “a Massachusetts moderate” who specializes in “managing the decay.” He vowed that he’d learned his lesson. Gingrich would run a contrast campaign with Mitt Romney, no matter how negative that contrast was, while continuing his crusade against negativity. Today, we see the result. This 30-second gut shot to his rival, which quotes conservative opinion pieces from the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, painting Romney as a timid Obama impersonator.

This is a negative ad. Sure it’s a “contrast” and it quotes pundits, but it’s every bit as negative as if Newt went on camera and fabricated something about Romney running a Moonshine still and an unlicensed casino out of his basement. It might raise valid concerns for many conservatives and it might not contain outright fictions, but it’s negative. Its aim is to damage Romney’s candidacy by sowing doubt among his supporters, offering Gingrich up as an alternative. On caucus night, Gingrich wasn’t claiming he was slandered–Romney’s attack have wielded facts and stayed away from personal issues like Gingrich’s marital history–he was complaining that negativity is bad for the process. And complaining. And complaining.

“All through being drowned in negativity, everywhere we went, people were positive, they were receptive, they were willing to ask questions, and they would listen,” he said of Iowans. In case “drowned in negativity” was too subtle, he added, “And they really wanted to get to the truth rather than the latest 30-second distortion.” He congratulated Santorum for waging “a great, positive campaign” and, as if he worried a sudden wave of amnesia had suddenly stricken the crowd, he noted,  “And I also admire how positive he was.” AHEM. “I wish I could say that for all the candidates.” His volunteers? Great because they saved him from being pulled under by “millions and millions of dollars of negative advertising.” Onward and upward to New Hampshire, he said, where “you can’t just buy TV ads or use robo calls” to win.

(MORE: Anti-Romney Ads: Why The Deafening Silence?)

Newt’s been around a long time, and was once himself a feared practitioner of the dark political arts. This whole victim routine is a little much, especially now that he’s cutting attack ads of his own. It’s also bad politics. Republicans want someone who can withstand a general election and not go jelly-legged under a few million in negative ads. Perhaps it was a miscalculation born of Gingrich’s fall surge, which was fueled by repeated condemnation of the media. People are turned off by the process, he might have thought. This was an another opportunity to strike a chord. But Mitt Romney is a very different enemy than the media. Conservatives love to hate journalists and have long felt they get short shrift from the likes of the New York Times. While the base has its reservations about Romney, it’s not convinced he’s rigging the game. It’s a campaign. All’s fair. Gingrich should know that.

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