During the 1964 presidential election, Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson released a vulgar campaign advert equating his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater with nuclear annihilation.
The spot, which became known as “Daisy Girl,” represented political theatre at its most base, playing on the pervasive and real fear of Armageddon to corral voters on polling day. Such was the controversy it only aired once. That was enough with Johnson’s securing an historic landslide to return him to the White House.
Half a century later and the attack on Goldwater still resonates. Last week Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Goldwater decent within the Libertarian family, announced his intention to run for the presidency.
On the same day a conservative group attacked Paul with a similarly vulgar $1 million TV campaign that played like a modern update to Sixties nuclear vignette. In the attack, the role of Soviet bogeyman was played by Iran, with President Obama (a Muslim fifth-columnist to many on the American right) cast as the facilitator via the nuclear agreement currently being whittled by Iranian and Western diplomats.
Yet unlike its political forebear, the attack on Paul did not originate from the Democratic Party but from a shadowy group tied to the GOP. To clarify: on the day Paul announced his bid for the White House, a group from within his own political stable unleashed an advertising campaign suggesting his candidacy could lead to a nuclear attack.
The group responsible for the spot is the Orwellian-named “Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America,” a hawkish nonprofit cabal whose status allows it to conceal the donors that paid for the advert. Not only was the senator attacked by his own, he was mugged in the dark, his assailants delivering kicks from the political void.
Paul is a divisive politician, beloved by younger Republicans, untrusted by religious and social conservatives and feared by the party establishment. Yet it is his non-interventionist worldview that represents the biggest threat, particularly to the neocons for whom perpetual war offers the healthiest returns.
The Libertarian has been softening his isolationism in recent months, moving towards the Republican mainstream. However, he has abstained from the GOP push to sabotage the Iranian nuclear deal, a move compelled by reasons running from blind allegiance to the Israeli right to a rabid need to scupper Obama’s legacy. To the neocons any appeasement towards Iran is unthinkable, and certainly won’t be tolerated in a prospective Republican presidential nominee.
In comparison, the negative campaigning for the forthcoming UK election looks almost childish, despite the efforts of a few dilettantes at Conservative Central Headquarters exploiting a YouTube loophole to create anti-Labour online fare.
At least it’s the opposition attacking Ed Miliband and not a shadowy faction within his own party. What’s more, the nature of the British system means that any attack on a party leader, no matter how cutting, has little meaning across the constituencies. The electorate votes for their local MP rather than a party head, thus limiting the effectiveness of national character politics.
The veracity of the attack on Paul is as suspect as its sophistication. Yet the Senator is not just a hapless victim. Only hours after Hillary Clinton announced her intention to run on Sunday, the Paul campaign released a vulgar spot rehashing parts of a conspiracy theory suggesting the former secretary of state was responsible for the Benghazi attack in Libya in 2012.
Just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean it won’t be effective. “The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances,” said the Prince, “and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.”