What's wrong with negative ads?

Mitt Romney’s résumé is a preposterously target-rich environment for attack ads. Though the shelf life of the two big items mined by the Obama campaign thus far—his lackluster record as Massachusetts governor along with his career at Bain—will soon expire, there’s no shortage of additional fodder. The Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe previewed one battle plan to John Heilemann of New York recently. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe said. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

That’s one way to go. There’s also the flip-flopping Mr. Etch A Sketch. There’s Romney’s countless tone-deaf attempts to feel the pain of the 99 percent. (My favorite, delivered to a group of jobless workers, remains “I’m also unemployed.”) There’s his risible, if dogged, effort to deny that his Massachusetts health-care law was the precursor of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. There’s his antediluvian, Goldwater-style truculence in foreign policy, including his unreconstructed Cold War–era conviction that Russia is America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” There’s “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” There’s the money stashed in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. There’s his endorsement of the Paul Ryan budget, which would mutilate the social safety net, including benefits for seniors. There’s his endorsement of Arizona immigration policy as a national “model” and his call for illegal immigrants to submit to “self-deportation.” There is, most of all, the radical party he is attempting to mask with a moderate image—the GOP that Thomas Mann (of the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (of the American Enterprise Institute) have characterized (in their new book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks) as “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

No doubt all of these themes, and more, will play their role, and should. Not a few of them overlap those considered by the LBJ campaign in going after Goldwater. But the undimmed legacy of the “Daisy” ad should be factored into the calculus. Emotion must trump information and ideological point-making in a powerful attack ad—one that has enough shock value to cut through the 24/7 election-year electronic clutter of the 21st century.

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