The creator of the Willie Horton ad is going all out for Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney, in his struggle to wrap up the 2012 Republican nomination for the Presidency, has presented himself as an outsider. During an exchange with Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, at a recent Republican debate, Romney declared that “to get this country out of the mess it’s in” Americans need leaders “from outside Washington, outside K Street.” One television ad by Romney supporters makes the same argument against Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, calling him “the ultimate Washington insider” while showing his face in front of an image of the Capitol dome.
Romney, unlike the remaining Republican candidates, has served no time in Washington. Yet he’s relying on a media offensive managed by operatives who have long been at the heart of Washington’s Republican attack machine. One of the leaders of this advertising war is Larry McCarthy, a veteran media consultant best known for creating the racially charged “Willie Horton ad,” which, in 1988, helped sink Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for President.
McCarthy, who is fifty-nine, helps direct the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future, one of the hundreds of new Super PACs—technically independent political-action committees set up by supporters of the candidates—that are dramatically reshaping the Presidential election. PACs have existed since the nineteen-forties, but for decades an individual donation was limited to five thousand dollars. The power of PACs increased exponentially in 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals could spend without limit—and pool their money in PACs—to influence elections, as long as they didn’t fund candidates directly. Super PACs have already injected fifty-six million dollars into the 2012 race, most of it going to negative advertising. Restore Our Future has spent seventeen million dollars—more than any other PAC—and fifteen million of that has gone to producing and airing ads made by McCarthy’s firm, McCarthy Hennings Media. By contrast, Romney’s official campaign has spent only eleven million on ads. The Super PAC is technically fighting a proxy battle on behalf of Romney, but in practice it has become the head warrior.
The television spot calling Santorum an insider was created not in Boston, where Romney’s campaign is based, but in Washington, in a corporate office building, with a marble-floored lobby, just two blocks from the K Street corridor that Romney disparaged in his exchange with Gingrich. McCarthy has an office on the second floor. With its unpretentious décor, it could be mistaken for a doctor’s waiting room, but McCarthy’s mission is signalled by a framed print on the wall that depicts a look-alike of President George W. Bush tearfully proclaiming, “I can’t help it—I’m such a compassionate conservative!”
McCarthy is known for his ability to distill a complicated subject into a simple, potent, and usually negative symbol. In Florida, Restore Our Future spent $8.7 million on ads, most of which targeted Gingrich, hastening the end of his brief front-runner status in the state. It was a replay of Iowa, where, the previous month, Restore Our Future had helped crush Gingrich’s lead by spending three million dollars on negative ads. The theme of the ads, which were made by McCarthy’s firm, was Gingrich’s “baggage.” The cleverest spot employed a visual gag of battered suitcases, plastered with Gingrich bumper stickers, tumbling down an airport luggage carrousel. One by one, the bags popped open. A green suitcase exploded with loose dollar bills—ostensibly ill-gotten gains from his work as a consultant to Freddie Mac. Another disgorged a video of Gingrich looking chummy with Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who is particularly disliked by conservatives. A female narrator, sounding like a stern mom, listed so many transgressions by Gingrich that the ad became a blur of disqualifying scandal, summed up in the final attack line: “Newt Gingrich—too much baggage!”
At least one of the ad’s accusations was demonstrably false. As a closeup of a Chinese flag saturated the screen with red, the narrator claimed that Gingrich and Pelosi had “co-sponsored a bill that gave sixty million dollars a year to a U.N. program supporting China’s brutal one-child policy.” Politifact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization, assessed the bill in question, the Global Warming Prevention Act of 1989, and found that it barred any U.S. funds from being used to pay for “the performance of involuntary sterilization or abortion or to coerce any person to accept family planning.” The claim earned Politifact’s lowest rating: Pants on Fire.
A few days after the spot began airing across Iowa, a reporter for the Huffington Post noticed that even residents who said they paid little attention to campaign ads often mentioned one prevailing concern about Gingrich: he had too much baggage. Evidently, McCarthy’s message was sticking. Colleagues note that McCarthy is a shrewd consumer of “O,” or opposition research, on the rival candidates he’s targeting, and that he hones his message using polls, focus groups, micro-targeting data, and “perception analyzers”—meters that evaluate viewers’ split-second reactions to demo tapes.
For all the effort that goes into calibrating the scripts, McCarthy’s ads often have the crude look of a hastily assembled PowerPoint presentation. They feature hokey graphics—key criticisms are highlighted with neon-yellow stripes—and a heavy-handed use of black-and-white to lend a sinister cast to images. The ads are the political equivalent of a supermarket tabloid, emphasizing the personal and the sensational. But when they hit their mark they are dazzlingly effective.
In using television as a political weapon, McCarthy is practicing an art that was pioneered by the Democrats. Arguably, no modern ad has matched the overkill of the 1964 “Daisy” ad, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign. Footage of a freckled little girl, counting the petals she was plucking off a flower, shifted into a doomsday countdown capped by a billowing mushroom cloud; the insinuation was that if Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, won he’d trigger World War Three.
Though both parties are outsourcing their dirty work to Super PACs this year, the main PAC supporting President Barack Obama, Priorities U.S.A. Action, has raised less than half the money collected by Restore Our Future. Republicans have led the charge to let corporations and the wealthy spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, and Democrats—who rely more on smaller donations—have fitfully opposed them. Conflicted by their need to stay financially competitive, they have swung between denouncing Big Money’s influence on elections and courting their own rich patrons. Obama condemned the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision as “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans”; in his 2010 State of the Union address, he criticized the decision while the Justices were sitting in the front row. Unsurprisingly, liberal donors haven’t been racing to write big checks to Super PACs.
This is hardly to say that the Democrats have clean hands. One Priorities U.S.A. Action ad, “Mitt Romney’s America,” earned a “four Pinocchios” rating from the Washington Post. It claimed, dubiously, that Romney would leave “Medicare dismantled” and “Social Security privatized.” And critics say that a recent ad made by the Democratic National Committee took an offhand remark by Romney—“I like being able to fire people”—out of context. “Yes, he said it, but he was talking about firing insurance companies that don’t do a good job,” Mike Murphy, a Republican media consultant, says. He calls such deliberately misleading ads “pejoratively true.” Murphy, who used to be known as Murphy the Mudslinger, and once had vanity license plates that read “GO NEG,” says that pundits are always lamenting that the current election cycle is the meanest ever. But this time, because of the proliferation of Super PACs, they might be right. “I’ve been doing this since the early eighties,” he says. “The standards have dropped lower and lower, as to what’s allowed. There’s less accountability now, because of the outside groups.”
Though Larry McCarthy is playing a key role in the 2012 race, he is reluctant to discuss it. Repeated phone calls went unanswered, and a hand-delivered request for an interview prompted Brittany Gross, a spokeswoman for Restore Our Future, to call and say, “I’m pretty much all you get. And I have no comment.”
“He doesn’t crave the limelight,” Cliff Shannon, the chief of staff for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, says. Shannon became office friends with McCarthy in the nineteen-seventies, when McCarthy was just out of Georgetown University, and they were both working as political aides for Senator John Heinz, of Pennsylvania. “You won’t find him on Fox morning news. He’s not in this for fame and fortune—though I’m sure he’s glad he’s made money. It’s about the work.”
Indeed, McCarthy sees himself as a craftsman. He told an interviewer that what drives him is “what every ad guy is seeking: the Holy Grail of the perfect spot.”
McCarthy’s detailed résumé, posted on the Web site of his advertising company, omits his most notorious creation—the Willie Horton ad. Paid for by a political group officially acting separately from the campaign of George H. W. Bush, it was the political equivalent of an improvised explosive device, demolishing the electoral hopes of Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts. Its key image was a mug shot of Horton—a scowling black man with a dishevelled Afro. Horton, a convicted murderer, had escaped while on a weekend pass issued by a Massachusetts furlough program. A decade earlier, Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have forbidden furloughs for murderers. After escaping, Horton raped a white woman and stabbed her fiancé. McCarthy knew that showing Horton’s menacing face would make voters feel viscerally that Dukakis was soft on crime. Critics said that the ad stoked racial fears, presenting a little-known black man as an icon of American violence.
McCarthy’s ad was condemned at the time, by Democrats and Republicans, for exceeding the boundaries of civility. And it raised unsettling new questions about possibly unlawful coördination between an official campaign and an outside political group. In retrospect, the spot was not an aberration; both in its tone and in its murky origins, it created a blueprint for the future.
McCarthy has rarely spoken publicly about the ad. But in a sworn deposition, given in 1991 to the Federal Election Commission, he theorized that there were two subjects guaranteed to move voters: the economy and crime. “People, they take crime real seriously,” he explained. He later told a reporter that when he first saw Horton’s mug shot he said to himself, “God, this guy’s ugly.” He added, “This is every suburban mother’s greatest fear.” McCarthy admitted to the reporter that he had used a ploy to get the ad past television-station officials, who, he worried, might regard it as inflammatory. (“The guy looked like an animal,” he said of Horton.) So McCarthy made two versions of the ad. The first, which he submitted for review, lacked the mug shot. Once the ad had been approved, McCarthy, claiming that he was fixing an error, replaced it with a version containing Horton’s photograph.
According to Floyd Brown, the conservative operative who hired McCarthy in 1988, the Horton ad “was incredibly effective.” Brown maintains that Dukakis’s lead over George H. W. Bush collapsed after the ad began airing. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster and strategist who also worked on the Horton ad, argues that McCarthy was relatively restrained—there were no photographs of Horton’s victims, for example. And Brown says that the ad became a scapegoat after Dukakis lost. Both men use the word “brilliant” to describe McCarthy. “Larry is not just one of the best ad-makers these days,” Brown says. “He’s one of the best advertising minds this century. You go into a studio with Larry, and you’re watching art. It’s beautiful.” He laughed, then added, “From my standpoint, it’s beautiful.”
Dukakis told me that the Horton ad took his record wildly out of context. A Republican predecessor had created the Massachusetts furlough program, he said, and forty-four states had similar programs at the time, including California; Ronald Reagan had instituted it there when he was governor. Two California parolees committed murders while furloughed. Dukakis said that he blamed himself for not responding more forcefully: “I made a big, big mistake by not attacking back.”
He then criticized Romney for allowing his campaign to be associated with McCarthy: “Romney’s really kind of a sad case. The Romney we saw running against Ted Kennedy”—for the Senate, in 1994—“seemed to be another kind of guy, but what’s happened to him is really pretty pathetic. He’s turned into someone who will say and do anything for votes.”
Romney has declined to criticize the tactics of McCarthy’s Super PAC. In an appearance on Fox News, he said, “I’m sure I can go out and say, ‘Hey, please don’t do anything negative.’ But, you know, this is politics, and if you can’t stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until the Obamas’ Hell’s Kitchen turns up the heat.” Romney, who would not comment for this article, has also maintained that he has no control over Restore Our Future. Although he stopped by a fund-raiser for the group last summer, to thank donors, he said recently, on “Morning Joe,” “I’m not allowed to communicate with Super PACs in any way, shape, or form. . . . If we coördinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house.”
Dukakis, for one, is not buying it: “For him to say that his Super PAC is independent is a joke. If you believe that, you believe in tooth fairies.”
The Willie Horton controversy raised issues more enduring than those surrounding the ad’s shock value. Its real legacy may be the proof it provided that outside political groups can operate with near-impunity in America, if they are crafty enough.
McCarthy made the Horton ad for an obscure group called Americans for Bush—Ambush, for short. It was an offshoot of another organization, the National Security Political Action Committee, or NSPAC. McCarthy had been working on Bob Dole’s Presidential campaign, and when it failed he needed a job. He has said that he signed on with NSPAC for one reason: “Cash.”
The Bush campaign disowned the Horton ad, and claimed to have no responsibility for it. Yet the campaign soon came out with its own ad attacking the Massachusetts furlough program. Fabrizio said of the Bush campaign, “I’m sure they secretly loved us.” Indeed, Roger Ailes—the chairman and C.E.O. of Fox News, who was then Bush’s media consultant—joked about creating a version of the Horton ad for Bush’s official campaign, saying, “The only question is whether we show Willie Horton with a knife in his hand, or without.”
The Democrats asked the F.E.C. to investigate whether NSPAC had colluded with Bush’s official campaign. If so, the outside ads would be considered illegal undeclared campaign contributions. In 1991, the F.E.C. issued a preliminary finding: there was “reason to believe” that Bush-Quayle ’88 and NSPAC had violated the law, because the two groups “were not independent” of each other.
Lawrence Noble, the F.E.C. general counsel who oversaw the inquiry, wanted to investigate further. “There were a lot of discrepancies in the testimony,” he told me. But the F.E.C., which had three Democratic commissioners and three Republicans, was deadlocked along party lines, and so Noble dropped the matter. One of the Republicans who voted against more digging was Thomas Josefiak, who is now a legal adviser to a Super PAC called American Crossroads, which was founded by, among others, the Republican operative Karl Rove. The group, along with a sister organization, has already raised fifty-one million dollars for the 2012 campaign.
The F.E.C.’s limited investigation found that Ailes “may have implicitly communicated to Mr. McCarthy” about “developing and airing negative spots.” McCarthy and Ailes spoke at least twice during the 1988 campaign. For six years during the eighties, McCarthy had worked under Ailes, as a senior vice-president of his consulting company. Cynical, profane, funny, and smart, Ailes had been advising Republicans on media strategy for years, and he became McCarthy’s mentor. In late 1987, McCarthy stopped working for Ailes, and several months later he was hired by NSPAC to make the Horton ad. Both men have repeatedly insisted that they never discussed ideas in any illegal way, and there is no evidence to the contrary.
However, information that surfaced in 2008 clouds the picture. Roger Stone, the flamboyant Republican operative, asserts that he was personally told that NSPAC and the Bush campaign were allied on the Horton ad. His allegation implicates neither McCarthy nor Ailes but, rather, their bosses. During the 1988 Presidential campaign, Stone says, he was summoned to the Bush campaign’s headquarters by its director, Lee Atwater. As Stone first recounted in “Boogie Man,” a documentary film about Atwater, and repeated to me, Atwater “locked the office door and he popped the famous Willie Horton spot onto a television. He said, ‘I got a couple boys gonna put a couple million dollars up for this independent.’ And I said, ‘That’s a huge mistake. You and George Bush will wear that to your grave. It’s a racist ad! You’re already winning this issue! It’s working for you! You’re stepping over a line and you’re gonna regret it.’ And he said, ‘Y’all a pussy.’ ”
Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret over the “naked cruelty” he had shown to Dukakis in making “Willie Horton his running mate.” McCarthy, however, has defended the ad. In 1994, as a guest on an ABC talk show, he objected to the correspondent Sam Donaldson’s description of it.
“I take exception with the word ‘horrendous,’ ” McCarthy said.
“You thought that was fair?” Donaldson said.
“I thought it was fair,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy may be known for his skill at political warfare, but he’s far less combative in person. Wes Pippert, a former United Press International reporter, joined McCarthy in the spring of 1987 as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He recalls that McCarthy “was the nicest guy in the group. He seemed to be a free and easy spirit.” McCarthy’s ambition while at Harvard was to write a detective novel, which he evidently started but never finished.
Pippert, who now directs the University of Missouri’s journalism program in Washington, recalled a seminar in which the journalist Jonathan Schell challenged McCarthy about the accuracy of a television ad that he’d made for Senator Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky. In 1984, McConnell, who is now the Republican Minority Leader in the Senate, and an aggressive opponent of restrictions on campaign spending, had narrowly defeated the Democratic incumbent, Walter (Dee) Huddleston; McCarthy had created for McConnell a series of memorable ads featuring a pack of bloodhounds trying to track down Huddleston, because he’d ostensibly missed so many Senate votes. McCarthy himself appeared in one ad, enjoying an Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo. The ad, which won a national advertising award, helped make McCarthy a star. He told the Washington Post proudly, “It was like tossing a match on a pool of gasoline.”
During the seminar, Schell argued that the ad was based on a faulty premise, because Huddleston, who had an attendance record of ninety-four per cent, missed no more votes than many other senators. McCarthy said, “It was a great ad!” Pippert recalled. “He kept replying that way. He just dismissed the idea that the facts were of any importance. I thought it was very revealing of Larry’s approach to advertising. It was great, in his view, because it defeated Dee Huddleston.” Pippert said that there was a “profound contradiction” between McCarthy’s geniality and his disregard for the truth. “It shows that a person’s affability is quite independent of his moral views,” he said.
Steve McMahon, a Democratic media consultant, has a similar view of McCarthy. “He’s a really, really nice guy who makes really, really nasty ads,” McMahon says. Despite their political differences, McCarthy kindly offered to help him get his daughter into the exclusive Catholic private school that his own daughters attended.
Tony Fabrizio, who this year worked on Rick Perry’s campaign, describes McCarthy as a “committed Republican,” not an ideologue: “I can’t say I’ve ever had a conversation with him about overthrowing the government and taking over the world. But he likes doing this stuff. It can be very addictive if you have a certain type of personality. It’s an addiction to winning, to succeeding, to making things happen—it’s a kind of high.”
Carter Eskew, a Democratic media consultant who gave up political work a few years ago in favor of working with corporations, agrees that “it takes an incredible fear of losing” to be good at making political ads. He says, “You have to think that, literally, you’ll die if you lose.” Although Eskew ran his share of attack ads, he says that over time he “began to think there were worse things than losing. What’s so bad about losing? Sometimes it’s worth it, to do the right thing. That’s why I got out.”
John Roberts, a former Reagan aide who made ads with McCarthy at the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, in the early nineties, says, “He was able to produce ads that took your breath away. They went right for the jugular. But he was cynical about the process, and about politicians. He did not see them as paragons of virtue. He saw them as twisted people.” Roberts suspects that McCarthy—who, he says, “didn’t grow up in a country-club-type family”—enjoyed taking down people he regarded as liberal élitists. “For him, it’s like fun and games, being able to knock the legs out from the other guy. It’s almost like vaudeville: ‘Hey, look at that, the high and mighty took a tumble!’ ”
McCarthy was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. The family lived on a cul-de-sac developed in the nineteen-fifties. His father was a government lawyer, specializing in immigration issues, and his mother was a homemaker. McCarthy, who has two older sisters, attended Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school. His sister Mary told me, “A Jesuit education gives you the ability to think critically and express yourself with precision,” adding, “Larry had a way with words.” He could also be sly: at Georgetown, for an assignment on satire, he turned in ten blank pages, the last of which said, “The End.”
The Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who has known McCarthy for thirty-five years and has occasionally worked with him on non-political projects, says, “He’s not ashamed or embarrassed. His attitude is, like, ‘You won’t believe who I banged last night.’ ” Hart believes that McCarthy “enjoys the notoriety. He’s like a really good writer who likes to write trash. Why do they do it? Because it sells, and it makes a lot of money.”
According to one media consultant, the best in the business earn about four million dollars a year, which is more than most lobbyists and law partners make. Typically, seventy per cent of every political dollar raised in a Presidential campaign is spent on “media buys.” Campaign consultants don’t disclose their finances, but they typically charge clients seven per cent of a project’s media budget, in addition to taking consulting and production fees. Pollsters, by comparison, get only two per cent of the media budget, and campaign managers just one.
McCarthy has a relatively modest life style, given his success. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, in a pleasant white Colonial with an American flag out front, and enjoys watching his daughters’ sports teams and taking walks with his two Bernese mountain dogs. Tall and thin, he wears glasses and a baseball cap, and has a patchy gray beard; he has described himself as Steven Spielberg’s doppelgänger. He reads the sports pages before he gets to the news, and, when pressed by the Hotline to describe his “happy place,” he answered, “Reliving once again Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jumps over the Nazis’ barbed-wire fence in ‘The Great Escape.’ ”
This year is likely to be McCarthy’s most profitable yet. It is predicted that total spending on television advertising in the Presidential race will reach two billion dollars. Both sides are well armed; though the Democrats trail the Republicans in Super PAC funds, Obama’s official campaign currently has twice as much money as Romney’s. Walter Shapiro recently argued in Washington Monthly that “the real crisis facing American politics” is not just the degradation of debate caused by such political air wars; it is “what elected officials have to do to raise the money to pay for those ads.” He concluded, “Gradually falling under the sway of big-time campaign donors is inevitable.”
In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, campaign-finance laws were dramatically reformed. In an attempt to curb corruption, Congress set contribution limits and established the public financing of Presidential campaigns. That year, Republicans were trounced. Operatives struggled to find ways around the new rules. In 1976, they partly succeeded, when the Supreme Court, judging a case brought by a Republican Senate candidate, struck down limits on “independent expenditures” by groups. Republicans seized the opportunity, creating the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which pooled its supporters’ money to make its own negative political ads. This established the model for today’s efforts to influence elections with outside money. In 1980, NCPAC helped defeat five liberal Democrats in the Senate. Craig Shirley, a historian and a longtime conservative operative who worked with NCPAC, says, “We were the forerunners.”
Between 1974 and 1986, the number of PACs nearly quadrupled, to some four thousand. Federal law capped individual contributions to PACs at five thousand dollars, and donors had to disclose their identities, but, as the Willie Horton ad showed, by pooling resources donors could create shadow campaigns. During this period, campaign ads, which had been an offshoot of documentary filmmaking, evolved from an art into an increasingly dark science, driven by polls and opposition research.
Although the Willie Horton ad helped elect George H. W. Bush, the reputations of Ailes and McCarthy suffered from their association with it. In 1989, as Kerwin Swint recounts in his biography of Ailes, “Dark Genius,” the opponent of an Ailes client made a negative ad calling him a “master of the slick and sleazy.” Ailes threatened to sue, insisting, “I am not Attila the Hun!” Ailes eventually left the campaign business for television news, announcing that he was “tired of it.”
But McCarthy kept at it. In 1991, he reunited with Floyd Brown, creating an ad promoting Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Financed by yet another PAC, the Conservative Victory Committee, it was called “Who Will Judge the Judge?” Crossing a rare line for a Senate confirmation battle, it attacked Thomas’s opponents on the Senate Judiciary Committee in highly personal terms. It reminded viewers that Edward M. Kennedy “was suspended from Harvard for cheating, left the scene of an accident at Chappaquiddick where Mary Jo Kopechne died,” and had recently partied in Palm Beach with a nephew who was soon afterward charged with rape. The ad claimed that the committee’s chairman at the time, Joe Biden, had been “found guilty of plagiarism during his Presidential campaign.” (There were no such legal charges.) President George H. W. Bush denounced the ad as “offensive” and “totally counterproductive,” and called on the group to take it off the air. Some of Thomas’s own allies, such as the social conservative Gary Bauer, condemned it. Brown was unperturbed: “One of the great things about an independent campaign is we aren’t responsive to the critics. I could care less.”
In 1993, McCarthy’s past caught up with him. Twenty-four hours after he joined the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign of Christine Todd Whitman, he was forced to resign; African-American groups had fiercely objected to the hiring of the man behind the Willie Horton ad. Whitman later wrote, “The ad was viewed, with reason, as being either visual shorthand to communicate solidarity with racists, or at least being so insensitive, it amounted to racism.”
McCarthy apparently decided to make the most of his bad-boy image. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and an adviser to a pro-Obama Super PAC, worked with McCarthy on the 1976 Heinz campaign. McCarthy has cited Garin as one of the Democratic consultants he admires. Garin said of the Horton ad, “Fairly or unfairly, Larry was vilified. My guess is after that there was no putting the genie back in the bottle, so he decided to use that genie to his advantage.” Since then, he says, McCarthy has been a “serial offender,” and has played “a pretty big part in lowering the bar on what is acceptable in American politics.”
In 2004, McCarthy believed that he had nearly achieved his ambition—the “perfect spot”—with an ad for George W. Bush, called “Ashley’s Story.” Created for another independent group, the Progress for America Voter Fund, it showed Bush embracing a teen-age girl whose mother had been killed on September 11, 2001, in Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center. The girl, Ashley, looked into the camera and said of Bush, “He’s the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.” The group bought more than fourteen million dollars’ worth of airtime for the ad, much of it in the key swing state of Ohio, where Ashley lived; it was the biggest single ad buy of the 2004 Presidential campaign. Two backers, both California business executives, contributed five million dollars apiece. Bob Shrum, a Democratic operative, was the principal strategist for Bush’s opponent, Senator John Kerry, and he blames the ad for the Democrats’ defeat. “The ad was pretty close to decisive in Ohio,” Shrum said. “And Ohio was the whole thing.”
McCarthy’s defenders argue that the Ashley ad proves that he can do powerful positive spots. Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant, says, “He’s the Deion Sanders of politics. He can play offense or defense.” Shrum, however, argues that the Ashley ad was “all about fear. The message was: ‘My mother was killed.’ ” He adds, “Was it skillfully made? Yes. But the exploitation of 9/11 was reprehensible.”
In 2005, L. Patrick Devlin, a professor emeritus of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island, delivered a conference paper asserting that the Bush campaign and Progress for America might have unlawfully coördinated their advertising plan. Devlin revealed that, after the 2004 campaign, he taped an interview with Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media director. McKinnon confided that he had planned to tell Ashley’s story in a film that he had made for the Republican Convention, at the end of the summer. But the Ashley material was dropped from the film when, he said, he “got a call from a lawyer who said it might not be a good idea . . . because that may have complicated what they want to do.” Progress for America aired the Ashley ad in the fall, when it had maximum impact. (McKinnon says that he never spoke with McCarthy or others associated with the ad, and that legal counsel told him he behaved properly.)
The F.E.C. eventually fined both Democratic and Republican groups for a hundred and fifty million dollars’ worth of illegal outside spending in the 2004 Presidential election. Republicans and campaign-finance watchdogs decried the financier George Soros’s record-breaking twenty-three-million-dollar donation to Democratic campaign groups, some of which were later fined for violating campaign laws. And Democrats denounced the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which scurrilously questioned Kerry’s war record. “It was independent? Ha-ha,” Shrum says. “It gave Bush what I call ‘implausible deniability.’ ”
When Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, in 2006, the balance started shifting in favor of deregulating political spending. The next year, the Court sanctioned unlimited, secret spending on “issues” ads, as long as they didn’t directly endorse or oppose a candidate, and as long as the primary purpose of the group making them was “educational” rather than political. Once the Court opened a path for unlimited anonymous money, it flooded in.
Conservatives cast their opposition to campaign-finance restrictions as a defense of free speech, but one of the cause’s biggest champions, Senator McConnell, occasionally revealed a partisan motive. McConnell once opened a college seminar by writing on the blackboard the three ingredients that he felt were necessary to build a political party: “Money, money, and money.” In a Senate debate on proposed campaign-finance restrictions, McConnell reportedly told colleagues, “If we stop this thing, we can control the institution for the next twenty years.” In the end, McConnell decided to wage his battle through the courts. He and a conservative lawyer, James Bopp, Jr., founded the James Madison Center for Free Speech, which mounted a legal challenge on behalf of Citizens United—yet another outside spending group created by McCarthy’s partner on the Willie Horton ad, Floyd Brown.
The case reached the Supreme Court, and its ruling, issued in January, 2010, rolled back a century of legislation limiting corporate money in federal elections. Citizens United argued, successfully, that political spending was a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In the past, the Court had balanced the free-speech argument against the need to protect American democracy from corruption. In Citizens United, a 5–4 decision, the Court essentially ruled that elections wouldn’t be corrupted by independent expenditures made by outside groups. They could spend all the money they wanted, as long as the contributions weren’t made directly to the candidates’ campaigns.
Lawrence Lessig, the author of a new book on campaign finance, “Republic, Lost,” argues that the Court misunderstood the nature of corruption. A greater peril than obvious, quid-pro-quo bribes is posed by systemic corruption, he says, in which voters regard the whole system as rigged. And the Court, by eliminating almost all the curbs on outside money in elections, has given wealthy donors disproportionate political power, largely in the form of Super PACs and nonprofit advocacy groups. Fred Wertheimer, the founder of Democracy 21, a liberal organization that wants stricter spending rules, calls the candidate Super PACs “frauds.” He says, “Everyone understands they’re functioning as arms of the candidate’s campaign. Their whole purpose is to circumvent the contribution limits—so we end up with a system of legalized bribery.”
In March, 2010, two months after the Citizens United ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals legalized unlimited donations to partisan PACs. The case, known as SpeechNow, was brought by David Keating, the executive director of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group.
That year, Politico named Larry McCarthy the “Attack Ads’ Go-To Guy,” noting that he was one of the largest beneficiaries of the spending spree resulting from the campaign-finance rulings. F.E.C. records for the fall of 2010 show that four organizations whose funders are secret—the American Future Fund, Americans for Job Security, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Rove-founded group Crossroads G.P.S.—together spent nearly seventy million dollars on campaign ads. Of that sum, eighteen million was spent on commissioning, then airing, ads from McCarthy’s firm.
McCarthy became the media consultant to the American Future Fund, a conservative Iowa-based organization founded in 2007. Registering with the I.R.S. as a nonprofit “issues” group, it spent $7.8 million on ads in 2010; all were made by McCarthy’s firm, and most attacked Democrats. Names of donors have not been made public, although Bruce Rastetter, a prominent Iowa Republican, and the founder of one of the country’s largest ethanol companies, has acknowledged that he was involved. Groups like the American Future Fund “operate in the shadows,” the Sacramento Bee wrote. “The power behind them is rarely apparent.”
In the summer of 2010, the American Future Fund aired an ad, created by McCarthy, that Geoff Garin describes as perhaps “the most egregious” of the year. The ad accused Representative Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat and a lawyer, of supporting a proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, which it called a “mosque at Ground Zero.” As footage of the destroyed World Trade Center rolled, a narrator said, “For centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories.” Now a mosque celebrating 9/11 was to be built on the very spot “where Islamic terrorists killed three thousand Americans”—it was, the narrator suggested, as if the Japanese were to build a triumphal monument at Pearl Harbor. The ad then accused Braley of supporting the mosque.
In fact, Braley had taken no position on the issue until an unidentified cameraman came up to him at the Iowa State Fair and asked him about it. He said that he regarded the matter as a local zoning issue for New Yorkers to decide. In general, he said, he valued America’s tradition of religious diversity. Soon afterward, he told me, the attack ad “dropped on me like the house in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ” Braley, who won his seat by a margin of thirty per cent in 2008, barely held on in 2010. The American Future Fund’s effort against Braley was the most expensive campaign that year by an independent group.
Braley said of McCarthy, “He doesn’t have the courage to put his own name on a ballot and run for office, or even to put his own name on his ads. Instead, he’d rather make tons of money by anonymously demonizing people. He’s profiting from Citizens United in the lowest way.” He went on, “The corporations are laughing all the way to the bank. It’s a good investment for them. And the consultants are making tons of money. They’re the winners. The losers are the American people, and the truth.”
Representative Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, fared worse. He was targeted by another McCarthy client, Americans for Job Security, a group that was founded, in 1997, with a million-dollar donation from the American Insurance Association. Public Citizen, the liberal reform group, filed a complaint with the F.E.C., calling it “a sham front group that would be better called Corporations Influencing Elections.” The F.E.C., deadlocked, took no action, but in Alaska state regulators forced the group to pay a twenty-thousand-dollar fine for operating as a corporate front that had “no purpose other than to cover various money trails.”
In the summer of 2010, Etheridge, like Braley, found himself the victim of a video ambush. He was walking on Capitol Hill when two young men in suits approached him. One thrust a camera in his face and the other, holding a microphone, asked him whether he supported the “Obama agenda.” Taken aback, Etheridge demanded, “Who are you?” As Etheridge asked the question five times without getting an answer, he pushed the camera away and gripped his inquisitor.
Finally, the interviewer stammered, “I’m just a student, sir.”
“From?” Etheridge asked.
“The streets,” the interviewer answered.
Within days, a video of the confrontation, edited to make Etheridge seem unhinged, was posted on Andrew Breitbart’s conservative Web site, Big Government, under the headline “CONGRESSMAN ATTACKS STUDENT.” It went viral. Soon afterward, McCarthy inserted the video into an ad, called “Who Are You?,” in which people purporting to be from Etheridge’s district answered, “We’re your constituents,” and then accused Etheridge—inaccurately—of wanting to cut Medicare. It’s unclear who paid for the ad. Americans for Job Security avoids disclosing its funders by registering as a nonprofit trade association devoted to promoting “pro-paycheck” issues. It calls its revenue “membership dues,” and claims not to spend money on influencing elections. But, according to WRAL-TV news, in Raleigh, among the “pro-paycheck” projects its members paid for in 2010 was a three-hundred-and-sixty-thousand-dollar ad buy against Etheridge.
Etheridge narrowly lost the 2010 election to a nurse running with the support of Sarah Palin. The next day, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had previously denied a role, acknowledged that it was behind the ambush video. It’s unclear how the video made its way into McCarthy’s attack ad, but the committee is one of his clients.
“They wanted to deceive people,” Etheridge says. “I have no idea who was behind it. You don’t know who’s doing it. There’s no name and no face.” He argues, “It really undermines people’s faith in democracy. That’s what’s sad. Everyone pays a price for the big, unregulated, undocumented money.”
Romney’s first Presidential campaign, in 2008, brought together several of the people involved in these questionable groups and tactics. That year, McCarthy was a member of the media team for the official campaign. Carl Forti, who was Romney’s national political director at the time, is now one of McCarthy’s co-directors at Restore Our Future. Forti is also the political director of American Crossroads. And he is the co-founder of the Black Rock Group, a company that advises major donors on strategy. His partner in Black Rock, Michael Dubke, founded Americans for Job Security, the organization that hired McCarthy to make the Etheridge attack ad, among others. The Black Rock Group, Americans for Job Security, and a company called Crossroads Media, which makes ad buys for outside donors and groups, share a suite in a luxurious office complex in Alexandria, Virginia.
In 2008, McCarthy and the other members of Romney’s media team created an attack ad against Mike Huckabee, accusing him of granting parole to a criminal who then raped and murdered a young woman. The ad team interviewed the victim’s mother, and got her to tell her horrifying story on camera. Wes Enos, who was Huckabee’s Iowa political director, says, “They tried to turn it into the Willie Horton ad.” Ultimately, Romney, who would have had to say that he had “approved this message,” decided against airing it.
Brad Todd, a consultant who worked on the Romney media team in 2008, says that the group was united in its support for the ad. But Romney, he said, “didn’t feel it was the closing statement he wanted to make” in Iowa.
This time, Romney doesn’t need to put his name on McCarthy’s ads. The Super PACs are free to operate as designated hitters. Most experts expect that the unusually nasty Republican primary clashes this year are warmups for the general election.
“It’s not just tougher out there,” Hart, the Democratic pollster, says. “It’s become a situation where the contest is how much you can destroy the system, rather than how much you can make it work. It makes no difference if you have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after your name. There’s no sense that this is about democracy, and after the election you have to work together, and knit the country together. The people in the game now just think to the first Tuesday in November, and not a day beyond it.”
Hart contends, “2012 is worse than 1972 for democracy. That was the height of Watergate, when people were collecting thousands of dollars in black bags. At least, at that stage, it was on behalf of a candidate who had to advertise in his own name. Now you can hide behind Super PACs that have no future responsibility to govern.” Hart says of McCarthy’s behind-the-scenes role, “If you want an assassination, you hire one of the best marksmen in history.”
Floyd Brown, the Republican operative, agrees. McCarthy “is a wonderful secret weapon,” he says. “And I’m glad Romney’s got him.” ♦