The Negative Ad Vortex

The Clinton campaign has released what it calls its “closing argument” ad: ” Kitchen .” The formula is familiar—a montage of scary images over an ominous drumbeat, followed by uplifting music and a picture of Hillary. The question: “Who do you think has what it takes?” Obama’s camp calls it a “fear ad” and cites a 2004 speech by Bill Clinton in which he said you should vote for the candidate who appeals to your hopes, not your fears. But Clinton spokesman Geoff Garin said in a conference call today that it’s “entirely a positive ad.”

So which is it, positive or negative?

Depends what dictionary you’re using. You could define a “negative” ad as one that 1) contrasts the two candidates on the issues, like health care , 2) impugns the opponent’s character, like charging that Clinton will ” say anything to get elected ,” or 3) just feels like a downer, like Clinton’s “Freefall” ad about the economy.

Both candidates have run all three types of ads (except for Obama, who hasn’t used the third type yet, but whose “bitter” comment pegged him for a week as Mr. Negative), and both have used all three definitions to characterize their opponents’ ads as negative.

In fact, at this point in the race, it’s hard to imagine either candidate running an ad that can’t be viewed as negative. If Obama ran an ad rehashing the hope/change message of mid-2007, it would feel stale. If Clinton plugged her own health care plan without implicitly mentioning that Obama’s would not cover an estimated 15 million people, it would almost be neglectful. The race has reached the point where negativity—according to one definition or another—isn’t just inevitable, it’s necessary to help voters figure out which candidate they prefer. It also creates an arms-race situation where the first candidate to back down looks weak.

Hence the irony of each candidate slamming the other for being too negative . We’ve already reached the point where they’re attacking each other for attacking each other for attacking each other. At what point does the race become so meta that it collapses under the weight of its own internal logic, and Wolf Blitzer’s head explodes?