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Is This Hillary Ad Really So Negative?

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In the wake of Clinton’s victory in Pennsylvania, the NY Times editorialized that Hillary’s campaign team had taken “the low road to victory.” According to the Times, one particular ad (above) had put her campaign over the edge into Karl Rove territory:

On the eve of this crucial primary, Mrs. Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11. A Clinton television ad — torn right from Karl Rove’s playbook — evoked the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the 9/11 attacks, complete with video of Osama bin Laden. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” the narrator intoned.

If that was supposed to bolster Mrs. Clinton’s argument that she is the better prepared to be president in a dangerous world, she sent the opposite message on Tuesday morning by declaring in an interview on ABC News that if Iran attacked Israel while she were president: “We would be able to totally obliterate them.”

By staying on the attack and not engaging Mr. Obama on the substance of issues like terrorism, the economy and how to organize an orderly exit from Iraq, Mrs. Clinton does more than just turn off voters who don’t like negative campaigning. She undercuts the rationale for her candidacy that led this page and others to support her: that she is more qualified, right now, to be president than Mr. Obama.

You can certainly deeply question Clinton’s remarks on Iran, but I don’t think you can put this particular ad in the category of negative campaigning. It does not mention Obama by name and instead is a mostly positive advertisement framing the leadership qualities of Clinton in the context of historic foreign policy conflicts or national emergencies. Sure, there is an image of Osama bin Laden, but should we put the events of 9/11 and terrorism out of bounds for reference when it comes to leadership qualifications, simply because Rove & Co. exploited the event so successfully in 2001?

You can expect a lot more than this ad from McCain and independent expenditure groups in the general election. Whoever emerges as the democratic candidate, whether Obama or Clinton, they need to be able to understand how to compete on the same ground while maintaining their integrity as candidates. I think Clinton strikes this balance in the Pennsylvania ad that the NY Times condemns. In the general election it will take a similar balance in order to win.

Perhaps the best discussion of the strategic use of emotion in political advertising is in the recent documentary …So Goes the Nation. The clip below from the film features the insights of Mark McKinnon, Bush’s chief advertising strategist, and now playing the same role for McCain. The message, as McKinnon describes, was to focus on “Steady Leadership in a Time of Change.” The narrative was Bush as steady versus Kerry as someone who doesn’t know who he is. As McKinnon suggests, Kerry was perfect in terms of reflecting liabilities in relation to Bush’s strengths.


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