When nice guys attack, they don’t

It is simply ridiculous to talk about former Gov. Angus King’s new television advertisement as being an “attack” ad, and it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s even “negative.”

The hallmarks of a real attack ad are tough to miss. They often pair distortions or outright lies with a message of ridicule. They seldom focus on real policy differences or complicated ideas. Instead, their simple goal is to scare or outrage voters or demean their targets.

The worst negative ads feature ominous voice-overs and dramatic music. They’re almost always studio ads, and they usually try to leave distance between the attacker and the attack. And often they’re full of exaggerations and distortions.

Here’s a transcript for King’s ad:

“My Republican opponent and I disagree on lots of things. Charlie signed a ‘no-taxes-ever’ pledge that will make it virtually impossible to solve the deficit. He doubts climate change science, favors taxpayer subsidies for big oil and thinks Washington isn’t broken.

“I want to bring common sense to the budget, get us off foreign oil with cleaner energy made in this country. And yes, Charlie, Washington is broken. That’s the choice: more of the same or a new independent direction. I’m Angus King, and I approved this message.”

The lines are delivered by King, who looks right into the camera and speaks for himself.

While there is a mild scolding tone when it comes to the point about Washington being broken, as attacks go, this one’s thin soup.

I happen to think it’s a good ad, which draws clear distinctions between King and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who is also running for the U.S. Senate.

But I don’t think most people will see this ad as a negative attack.

Summers has benefited from more than a million dollars in advertising from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Those ads have thrown some sharp elbows – and have had an impact on King.

Because they’re paid for by outside groups, Summers has complete deniability about the form and content, which has ranged from mocking attacks of King, to distorted claims that turned out to be untrue, to attempts to bolster Democrat Cynthia Dill, who’s currently running third in the U.S. Senate race.

One NRSC ad makes several spurious charges that have failed the “truth test” by the Portland Press Herald and drawn the scorn of the Boston Globe editorial board, which wrote: “In its attempt to keep the Maine Senate seat in the GOP column, the [NRSC] has thrown truth to the wind.”

The most effective negative attacks leave a lasting impression that can endure long after the campaign. Consider these ads: Daisy, Willie Horton, Windsurfing or the Swift Boat Veterans. They’ve entered the political lexicon. “Swift boating” is a verb now, used to describe a particular damaging and misleading type of attack ad.

In one Swift Boat ad, a veteran says of Sen. John Kerry, who was running for president: “He betrayed us in the past. How could we be loyal to him now?” “He dishonored his country.” “He lied.”

Kerry was also hit with another effective ad, Windsurfing. The spot shows grainy footage of Kerry windsurfing with a voice over: “John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.”

Running George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Gov. Michael Dukakis, attack ad maestro Lee Atwater said Willie Horton would be a household name before the election was over. He was right. The ad portrayed Dukakis as weak on crime and an accessory to kidnapping and rape.

And then there’s the granddaddy of all attack ads, Daisy. A minute long, the black and white ad is a work of vicious art.

It starts with a young girl, counting as she plucks the petals off a daisy. The little girl’s voice is replaced by a man’s gruff voice, counting down from 10. The camera zooms into the little girl’s face and then into her eye.

At zero, the screen is filed with a nuclear explosion. “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark,” President Lyndon Johnson said in the ad. “We must either love each other, or we must die.”

Johnson’s campaign ran the ad only one time, yet it’s still talked about today.

King owns his ad. He talks about a few policy areas where he and Summers disagree, and he does it in his own voice. No bombs and no bombshells.

And, if you asked a lot of Summers’ supporters about what the ad says about him, they’d agree. While chanting “drill, baby drill,” they might just join Summers in doubting the scientific consensus about climate change and cheer his no-tax-no-matter-what pledge.

If his supporters agree, how’s that negative or an attack?