What McCarthy Means for Pro-Romney SuperPAC

Recap from It's a Free Country.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jane Mayer, New Yorker staff writer, discussed the career of Larry McCarthy, one of the most successful negative-ad makers in history, who is now working for the pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future.

Donning the brass knuckles again

Can Larry McCarthy make the 2012 campaign even more vicious?

McCarthy, the mastermind behind such seminal political attack ads as the 1988 Willie Horton spot, has thrown his hat in with Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney SuperPAC that's been pulling in huge money.

Jane Mayer said that working with a SuperPAC should feel familiar to McCarthy, who has decades of experience operating just outside of political campaigns: in the corners of campaign finance that most Americans didn't think about before Citizens United.

He's almost always been with outside groups, groups that were predecessors of SuperPACs. And those are the ones that really use the brass knuckles.

The Willie Horton ad

Of the many ads created by Larry McCarthy over the years, the one that used convicted felon Willie Horton to hammer former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis on crime remains the most infamous. 

The Horton ad stands out for its explicit imagery and gruesome bravado: flashing the words "kidnapping", "stabbing", and "raping" before showing a picture of a presidential candidate takes it to a level that most attack ads dare not go. And yet, the ad is like most others in one fundamental respect: it distorts the facts.

Mayer pointed out that the ad never mentions the furlough program was started not by Dukakis, but by his Republican predecessor.

The Willie Horton story had taken place 12 years before [Dukakis] was running for president, and the furlough program was similar to furlough programs in 45 of the 50 states, and the national program that had been set up by Reagan.

That's not the only thing McCarthy swept under the rug. Mayer said that when he was originally shopping the ad to television stations, he offered a version that didn't include Horton's mugshot. The spot that eventually aired—which included a picture of Horton, a black man—was more inflammatory for its perceived racial coding than the one most stations thought they were airing.

[McCarthy] decided they shouldn't show [the version with the mugshot] to the stations when they were going to try and get approval to put the ad on the air. Then later, after it was approved, he sent a second version, which he said just had a correction in it. They didn't look at it carefully—he knew it would get by station managers and get on the air that way.

Unlimited money, killer ads

Jane Mayer said that inserting any sort of similar racial coding—intentional or otherwise—in a 2012 political advertisement wouldn't fly. But spinning the facts and taking information out of context remains par for the course. With McCarthy and unprecedented millions of dollars in the mix, likely more than in any election ever up to this point, Mayer said the attack ads aren't going away anytime soon.

What you can expect is killer ads, an awful lot of negativity. It's entertaining in some ways, and some of the ads are actually informative too, but they have the end effect of so degrading the debate and making both candidates look so awful that it increases cynicism among voters and decreases idealism.

That might be what this campaign ends up being remembered for more than anything else.

2012 is the year of unlimited humongous money. You can't compete without it. It's really changing the face of presidential politics.