Bill Richardson on the attack

In the first negative ad of the Democratic race, the New Mexico long shot goes after his rivals on Iraq.

Published December 19, 2007 5:59PM (EST)

In the spirit of keeping all blogs intensely personal, let me reveal that I am at this very moment in my room at the Hotel Fort Des Moines watching the soft-focus third hour of the "Today" show on WHO. My goal is not to pick up weight-loss tips, learn Yuletide recipes or even watch the upcoming feature on Patti LaBelle. Instead, I am wishing, hoping, dreaming and waiting for the just-announced-this-morning new Bill Richardson campaign spot to appear in rotation.

Over the last hour (roughly from 8:20-9:30 a.m. local time), I have seen two upbeat Barack Obama ads; two versions of the Mike Huckabee Christmas spot (in which your eye keeps getting drawn to the window frame in the background that is filmed to look exactly like a large cross); two Joe Biden commercials promoting his plan for a tripartite division of Iraq; two John Edwards promos about rising above "petty politics" (there is a window in this one as well, but no subliminal Christ imagery); an independent-expenditure ad on behalf of Edwards (a back-door way to avoid campaign-spending limits); a forgettable 30 seconds of Chris Dodd talking to the camera; a Ron Paul bio spot; another Edwards commercial (the best one of his) about a middle-aged man in the South who endured life with a cleft palate because he lacked health insurance; and a Hillary Clinton promo revealing that she has the full and enthusiastic support of her mother, Dorothy Rodham.

If you feel exhausted from reading the prior paragraph, imagine what it is like to be a TV viewer in Iowa during the mad rush to the Jan. 3 caucuses.

My obsession with the new Richardson commercial -- which I have only seen on the Internet -- is simple. It is (drum roll, maestro) the first negative ad of the Democratic campaign season. (In fairness, it is much tamer than the stuff that Mitt Romney has been hurling at Huckabee). Here is the link provided by the Richardson campaign.

The spot begins with the slightly ominous voice of an off-screen narrator who asks, "Is there a difference between the Democrats on Iraq? There's a big difference. Bill Richardson's the only major candidate ... with a plan to remove all our troops." The biggest sign that this is an attack ad (beyond the narrator's tone) is the section in which Clinton, Obama and Edwards are unflatteringly pictured with their mouths flapping mutely while the voice-over sniffs that they all "have repeatedly said they'll leave thousands of troops in Iraq indefinitely, even beyond 2013."

(Without getting bogged down in pesky things like fact-checking, it is fair to say that Richardson -- unrealistically to many -- does want to rush to withdraw all U.S. troops, while the leading candidates discuss in differing ways temporarily leaving residual forces in Iraq or the region, primarily to fight terrorism.)

The press release that popped up in my in box this morning makes clear that the Richardson campaign knows full well that it has just crossed the Rubicon with this commercial. The New Mexico governor is quoted as saying, "I pledged early in this race to stay positive and debate the issues. This ad does not change that because in my mind, no other issue is more important than Iraq, and there are clear differences on where we stand."

C'mon. If you parse those two sentences, they become pure double talk: Richardson invokes Iraq to justify breaking his promise on staying positive, while simultaneously denying he is going back on his word. And, by the way, this is no sudden issue fissure -- Richardson has been at odds with his rivals over the pace of withdrawal from Iraq since this point of contention flared up in debates back in late spring and early summer.

So what should be Richardson's penalty for being the first (at least on my scorecard) to go negative? The cruelest punishment would be to force him to continue to campaign in Iowa even after the caucuses are over. By attacking Clinton, Obama and Edwards in the same ad -- instead of singling out one of them as particularly vulnerable -- Richardson seems implicitly conceding that he is really in a race in Iowa for a meaningless fourth-place finish.

Actually, the desperation of the whole thing prompts me to wonder why Richardson (and probably Dodd and Biden as well) did not concede Iowa a long time ago and decamp to New Hampshire to make a last-ditch stand.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Bill Richardson Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards