Lee Atwater must be smiling somewhere. The originator of the establishment South Carolina firewall, he was the 1988 Bush campaign manager who made his celebrity from happy-go-lucky hatchet politics. Favorite pastimes were intentionally mispronouncing the names of Bush opponents' Cuomo and Dukakis and going negative for the entertainment value. Atwater's close friend was none other than George W. Bush, a pairing the Washington Post reported as a "giggling, laughing, Beavis and Butt-head relationship."
It wasn't until Atwater was near death in 1991 at age 40 from a brain tumor that he expressed regrets over his negative techniques.
In Election 2000, the ghost of Lee Atwater is very much alive, but this time it's on steroids. Lesson numero uno to present and future political science majors: (The lowest of) negative campaigns work. Lesson number two: political language has lost all meaning.
First, a disclaimer. I spent the last ten days of the South Carolina Primary observing and occasionally volunteering my time for the John McCain campaign. I am a registered independent from New Hampshire on semester's leave from my teaching position in political science at New England College and as executive director of Common Cause in New Hampshire. I went to South Carolina buoyed by McCain's huge victory in New Hampshire (despite being outspent by Bush 5:1) and to see how his messages of campaign reform and 'inspiring a generation of young Americans to causes greater than their own self-interest' would play. I came away crestfallen at the despicable campaign tactics the Bush campaign and its allies used to pull out a 11 percent victory margin on Saturday, this after both McCain and Bush had run positive campaigns in New Hampshire and referred to each other as friends.
There's no doubt that McCain's 19 percent victory over Bush in New Hampshire caused a panic rethink strategy in the Bush team. Their response was to drop the "compassionate conservative" that had failed Bush in New Hampshire and wage a nonstop barrage of negative attacks to kill the messenger McCain. Nothing was too low to rule out. The nadir moment occurred February 3rd when a smiling Bush stood in front of television cameras as a fringe Vietnam veteran, Thomas Burch, denounced McCain as a POW who "came home and forgot us." Governor Bush knows Burch well. The same Thomas Burch had accused President Bush of abandoning veterans during his administration, but alas, all old wounds must have been healed in time to neutralize McCain's war hero factor. Push polling by Bush activists was standard fare and leaflets distributed by Bush allies described McCain as "pro-abortion" and "the fag candidate" (because McCain was the only Republican presidential candidate to meet with the gay Republican men's group, Log Cabin Republicans). One particularly offensive missive distributed via the Internet and to the press was from the Christian Fundamentalist Bob Jones University, where Bush had staked his Christian conservative claim one day after the NH Primary. A professor named Richard Hand wrote that McCain "chose to sire children without marriage," among other hallucinations.
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McCain fought back (much like a sailboat might take on a battleship) with a regrettable political ad in which he accused Governor Bush of using campaign tactics that were "twisting the truth like Clinton." Clinton is the Anti-Christ to conservative Republicans in South Carolina and Bush was able to use the Clinton comparison to his full advantage throughout the campaign. By the weekend of the primary vote, more South Carolinians blamed McCain for going negative than they did Bush, despite the fact that McCain pulled all broadcast political advertisements critical of Governor George Bush in the last week of the campaign and promised that "I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land." (McCain pulled his ads after hearing the story of Donna Duren, who told McCain at a February 10th Spartanburg Town Hall Meeting that her 14-year-old son, who considers McCain his hero, had been push polled and told that McCain was a "liar, cheat, and a fraud." )
Like Bill Bradley haplessly defending his health care plan too late after Gore spent months using the attack-a-day plan, McCain came across as negative if he said anything on the stump. His resources were no match to Bush's $3.1 million negative radio and television air war. And Bush kept pouring gasoline onto the fire with ads that said, "John McCain promised a clean campaign, then attacked Governor Bush with misleading ads." Over a ten-day period, McCain's unfavorability rating went from 4 percent to 18 percent while Bush's dropped from 26 percent to 20 percent. On the campaign trail, Bush said, "It's sad, isn't it? The true nature of John McCain is evidently coming out."
Lesson number two: language has lost all meaning in politics. In South Carolina, the 70 million dollar man Bush redefined himself as the "reformer with results" and exit polls among voters identified Bush more often than McCain as a "real reformer." Bush told CNN after his win that South Carolina voters "responded overwhelmingly for me because I ran a positive campaign, a campaign that clearly enunciated what I want to do." McCain's promise to break the iron triangle of "lobbyists, big money and legislation" was turned on its head in Bush's victory speech: "They oftentimes talk about an iron triangle in Washington. We've got an iron triangle here in South Carolina. And that's my three co-chairmen." Make that a virtual Empire of Establishment support.
Ultimately Bush may pay a high price in the general election. One McCain volunteer turned to me while watching the results and said, "You might as well start calling him President Al Gore," signaling that Bush's win came on the strength of the religious right. McCain's political director John Weaver said, "Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are to be congratulated." The higher price is the disillusionment the South Carolina primary will cast on those who witnessed it at the ground level. The clean campaign tactics in New Hampshire inspired me. South Carolina reinforces that the low road in American politics is the fastest way to the White House.