When Freedom’s Watch burst upon the political scene in August 2007, it was part of a coordinated effort to rally support for staying the course in Iraq. The group unveiled four slick TV ads, including one featuring a veteran who lost a leg in Iraq who argued that we have to stay in Iraq because “they attacked us.” It was part of a $15 million dishonest blitz, asking Americans not to believe their lying eyes.
Of course, the right-wing group, which aims to be a political powerhouse, has always had far loftier goals. There was some talk of Freedom’s Watch spending big bucks in the 2008 campaign cycle, though a recent staff shake-up raised questions about the limits of the group’s impact.
It now looks as though any hopes that these unhinged conservative hatchetmen would be weakened this year were wishful thinking.
The conservative group, Freedom’s Watch, which has endured some prominent staff departures in recent months, announced today the hiring of Carl Forti, who was most recently political director for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, to run the group’s issue advocacy campaign in the fall.
Prior to the Romney campaign, Mr. Forti was communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he oversaw the committee’s independent expenditures in 2004 and 2006.
Chris Cillizza added, “Forti called the position ‘an important job in an important cycle.’ Asked about the goals for the organization, Forti said only his aim was ‘to educate people about issues important to them and their neighbors.’”
Yes, “educate.” Carl Forti is all about the educating.
Let’s take a look at the “educational” efforts Forti led in the 2006 election cycle.
One advertisement accused the rival candidate of billing taxpayers for a call to a phone-sex line. One alleged that a candidate “fixed” his daughter’s speeding tickets. Still others stated that a candidate endorsed a “coffee talk with the Taliban,” and that another was supported by the Communist Party.
Each charge was misleading at best, demonstrably false at worst. Yet the National Republican Congressional Committee paid for each of those ads last year, and its leaders said they could do nothing to pull them, even after some of the Republicans whom the ads were designed to help demanded that they come down.
Now, four months after Republicans lost control of Congress, many of their former candidates are calling for major changes at the NRCC. They depict the committee as a rogue attack-ad shop that shielded party leaders from having to account for the claims in their ads — encouraging over-the-top accusations that often hurt GOP candidates.
“They weren’t just attacking my opponent — they were, bit by bit, destroying a reputation that I had spent years and years building,” said Ray Meier, a Republican candidate in upstate New York whose Democratic opponent was wrongly accused of making adult fantasy calls.
Annenberg Political Fact Check, which is nonpartisan and scrutinizes campaign ads, called the NRCC ads that Forti oversaw “the very definition of political mudslinging.” Annenberg added that Forti’s NRCC work “stood out” for “the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers.”
And now Forti is going to lead a massive right-wing operation that intends to spend a quarter of a billion dollars. (To put that in context, there’s simply no precedent for an independent political operation to have that kind of money. In 2004, MoveOn.org, which was extremely active, spent $21 million. The Swift Boat liars spent $22 million. Harold Ickes’ Media Fund spent in upwards of $100 million. Freedom’s Watch aims to spend more than all of them put together, and then some.)
If the past is any indication, Freedom’s Watch’s ads are going to be pretty vile; American politics at its worst and most destructive. But I’d just add one encouraging caveat — Forti went as ugly as he possibly could in 2006, and Democrats crushed Republicans nationwide anyway, winning back majorities in both the House and Senate.
These efforts, in other words, may be caustic and injurious to our public discourse, but sometimes they lose.