The Rulebook for Campaign Smears

If Republicans get to talk about President Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Roland Martin said on CNN Thursday, then Democrats get to talk about how Mitt Romney's Mormon church used to be racist, so there. Could there be a perfectly calibrated rulebook regulating the precise tit-for-tat between presidential campaigns? The Atlantic Wire has tried to create one.

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If Republicans get to talk about President Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Roland Martin said on CNN Thursday, then Democrats get to talk about how Mitt Romney's Mormon church used to be racist, so there.  Martin was responding to a proposal for a $10 million ad campaign -- disavowed by its funder just hours after it was reported -- that would portray Obama as helplessly under the influence of lefty radicals. While Martin's proposal makes us fear for an ugly election, it's still intriguing: could there be a perfectly calibrated rulebook regulating the precise tit-for-tat between presidential campaigns? The Atlantic Wire has tried to create one. The underlying principle? An eye for an eye, or, in this case, a political wife for a political wife.

For a guide, we studied boxing, and, specifically, the way the rules governing the sport grew more specific and more complicated over time. In 1743, Broughton's rules were simple: no grabbing below the waist, and if you go down for more than 30 seconds, you're out. Then came London Prize Ring rules in 1838, which banned biting and headbutting. Nineteen years later, the Marquess of Queensberry made things even more complicated, but also more fair: only two people in the ring at once, a 10 second recovery time, a standardized length for rounds. In that same spirit of progress, we've clarified what we see as gradually standardizing Smear Rules.
The Roland Rule. A candidate must not raise suspicions about his opponent's religious views, as the Constitution holds there shall be no religious test for public office. The exception to this rule is if the opponent brings up the candidate's religious teacher as part of a racially-tinged attack on the candidate's ideology. In that case, the candidate may reverse the charge, attacking his opponent's religion for being racist.
Example: For two decades, President Obama's preacher was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright until Obama disavowed him in 2008 when clips of him saying "God damn America" hit cable news. Mitt Romney was 31 in 1978, the year the Mormon church began allowing black people to become priests -- old enough to have formed an opinion on the subject. As Martin ranted on CNN, "If [Republican donor Joe] Ricketts wants to do that, if the GOP they want to do that, you're now putting Mormonism on the table. You're now putting on the table how African Americans were treated by the Mormon religion... I don't think Mitt Romney really wants to have that conversation, considering he was an elder and his dad was an elder, and they really did not embrace African Americans. It is a ridiculous conversation."
The Better Half Rule. A candidate shall not invoke his opponent's wife unless one of two conditions are met:
  • a. The wife "injects herself into the conversation." 
  • b. Or an opponent invokes the candidate's wife first.
Example: If Ann Romney is a spoiled princess, Michelle Obama is uppity. In April, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life." It was an echo of Ann's portrayal when Romney ran for Senate in 1994 as a blissfully unaware rich lady. The Romney campaign responded by sending Ann to give speeches about celebrating women's choices, but it has not (yet?) deployed the "uppity" bomb, a favorite among some conservatives. Given the racial undertones of "uppity" when applied to black women, the Romney campaign could go for an alternate, like that MIchelle wants to control what you eat but isn't skinny, another favorite joke of some conservatives.
The Swimming Pool Full of Money Rule. A candidate shall not make an issue of his opponent's wealth, unless
a. The opponent accuses the candidate of being "out of touch" 
b. Or the opponent brings it up first.
Example: The Obama campaign has long been attacking Romney for his business decisions at Bain Capital, but it risks slipping into attacks on Romney just for being a Richie Rich. "While Biden attacks Romney as not understanding the middle class it should be noted Biden owns a $2M house," BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski tweets, with a photo of the Biden residence attached (at right). Former Obama economist Austan Goolsbee replied, "you must be kidding. Joe Biden as rich guy? Come on."
The Awkward Phase Rule. A candidate must not attack an opponent for embarrassing, unusual, or irresponsible things he did in his youth. If childhood misbehavior is raised by an opponent, the candidate is allowed to attack his opponent for things done at the same age or three years younger than the alleged misbehavior.
Example: In his senior year of high school, Romney attacked a kid for having an effeminate hairstyle and cut off the offending locks with the assistance of a gang of prep school jerks. So far, the Obama campaign has not used this against Romney, but if he were to do so, Romney could consider citing, as so many bloggers did, the section of Obama's own biography where he says he shoved a girl in fifth grade. However, we feel that the shoving incident occurred outside the accepted window (minus-8 years of Romney's age at the bullying incident , instead of the statutory minus-3 years). It would be better for Romney to find an example of Obama being a jerk in the ninth grade or later.
The Adorable Child Rule. If an opponent's offspring are irresistibly perfect for a candidate's political narrative, the candidate may raise the issue of the offspring, but only in, at minimum, a faux-positive manner. If a candidate's own children are mentioned in that manner, a candidate may retaliate by condemning the vicious attack on the innocent offspring or question whether the opponent's offspring are the unfortunate victims of the opponent's bad parenting.
Example: In 2004, the Republican Party was encouraging swing states to put gay marriage bans on the ballot to turn out conservative voters. Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, is gay, so John Edwards, who was John Kerry's running mate, complimented Cheney on being such an accepting parent to his daughter. "You can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing," Edwards said. Kerry mentioned Mary in the next presidential debate. Cheney said he was angry, his wife Lynne said Kerry was "not a good man" for talking about their daughter.
Now that we've figured out the perfectly proportional way to play tit-for-tat, we've like to note an episode of Radiolab, in which computer models competed to see what the best strategy was to approaching the prisoner's dilemma. It's a classic example of Game Theory, in which two partners in crime (or nuclear-armed nations) who don't know what the other side is up to have to decide whether to squeal or not squeal (nuke or not nuke). The incentives appear to be to squeal (nuke) first every time, meaning both go to jail (or total nuclear war). But the computer model that's most successful turns out to be the one that played tit for tat -- if nuked, nuke back -- only after the first move, which was always to not nuke.  We think this offers a lesson for the candidate contemplating the Smear Rules: sometimes it pays to play nice first.
(Photos via Reuters.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.