Newt Gingrich has been vowing not to run a negative campaign, even as a tsunami of negative ads against him in Iowa slams the former Speaker of the House up against the polls with back-breaking force. Gingrich found his vows sorely tested on the CBS Early Show this morning, where the Washington Post recounts this exchange:
The former House speaker has refused to go negative in ads, even as he attacks his rivals in public for using those tactics. Gingrich has singled out Romney in particular for refusing to disavow negative ads aired by a supportive super PAC.
The candidate brushed up against this charge on Sunday, calling Romney “somebody who will lie to you to get to be president, will lie to you when they are president.” On CBS he was explicit.
“Well, you seem shocked by it!” Gingrich exclaimed. “Which part of what I just said to you is false? Why is it that if I’m candid in person and I wanted to be honest in person, that’s shocking … In the traditional Washington pattern it’s better to be sweet and honest and have this face of saying, ‘Oh, gee, we want to be nice to each other no matter what happens to the American people.’”
(Emphasis mine.) For good measure, Gingrich declared that he would support Romney if he were the nominee, but predicted the “Massachusetts moderate” would be “torn apart” by Barack Obama. I’m not sure if “blunt” is the way I would describe Gingrich’s tone. Sometimes he’s blunt, but he also has access to a number of bladed verbal weapons, and in this case he was swinging a machete.
Gingrich is clearly angry about the huge volume of negative advertising deployed against him in Iowa, which raises two troubling points against him. First, if he seriously thought he could single-handedly engineer a high-minded campaign by personally refusing to run negative ads, he was being rather naïve. That’s not usually a criticism you hear leveled against him. It would be one thing if he strongly declared his personal determination not to go negative, invited all of his rivals to follow suit, and then found himself commenting upon their sadly unsurprising failure to do so… but he does seem a bit surprised at how his Iowa numbers were beaten down, and that isn’t good.
More disturbing is the way Gingrich has spent the past week acting peeved about the refusal of media referees to throw some yellow flags for unsportsmanlike conduct. Look at how angry he appears over the “shock” he detects in Norah O’Donnell, after he tells her Romney is a liar. His attitude is one of profound disappointment that the media hasn’t taken his side and criticized the other candidates for dropping weapons of mass distraction on Iowa. It was unrealistic to expect them to do so, and it would be downright delusional to think they would criticize Team Obama for going negative during the general election. The media does like to cluck its tongues about negative campaigning from time to time, but not when a Republican is the target, and it’s working.
It’s difficult to respond to negative advertising without, in some sense, “going negative.” The accusation that a rival is pounding you with ugly and/or misleading ads inevitably becomes a slam against that rival’s character. It’s a bit disingenuous for Gingrich to continue to disavow negative campaign advertising while he personally takes to the airwaves and calls Mitt Romney a liar, in a manner that suggests the activities of his super-PAC are just the last bit of straw dropped upon the overstressed Gingrich back.
Evidence would suggest the Gingrich desire to remain officially positive hasn’t been working very well, at least not in Iowa. That’s not likely to inspire other candidates to ride through the lists upon pure white ponies, carrying blunt lances garlanded with flowers. Interestingly, Gingrich is not the only one to refrain from lobbing bombs at Romney. A Yahoo News report relates the “extraordinary fact” that “not one of [Romney’s] Republican rivals ran a negative TV ad against him in the state.”
Sure, Romney was sometimes mentioned in the onslaught of attack ads that swept Iowa airwaves in the final days of the campaign. Ron Paul ran a television ad trashing Romney and Newt Gingrich as members of the status quo who won’t bring the leadership necessary to really change Washington. And Make Us Great Again, a super PAC backing Rick Perry’s candidacy, ran ads that took aim at Romney and Gingrich, questioning their conservative credentials.
But none of Romney’s 2012 rivals ran an ad solely taking on the former Massachusetts governor—a sign that they perhaps underestimated his rise in Iowa.
Just 20 percent of the negative ads airing in Iowa targeted Romney, even as part of an attack on multiple candidates, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. By comparison, 45 percent of the negative spots went after Gingrich—a statistic that explains, in part, why the former House speaker’s poll numbers in the state plunged in the final days of the campaign.
An old nugget of political wisdom says that you can’t “beat something with nothing” – campaigns can’t be won entirely through criticism of the opponents. It seems equally true that it’s tough to beat front-runners without giving voters some reasons to vote against them.