In recent American politics, the most notorious case of negative campaigning is perhaps the 1988 presidential election. Democrat Michael Dukakis entered the fall campaign with a 17% lead over Vic President Bush, the Republican. Bush’s campaign, led by Lee Atwater, decided that their best chance of winning was to destroy Dukakis’s image. The Republicans centered their attacks on two themes, trust and taxes, or as they liked to call it, TNT. At every chance, the called Dukakis a “tax and spend liberal.” Sometimes they added that he was from Massachusetts, just to reinforce the image of a northeastern liberal. But the really nasty smears came on the trust side. They painted Dukakis as someone completely out of touch with mainstream American values. Dukakis was in favor of burning the American flag, they argued. (Dukakis was not in favor of burning the flag. He simply believed that burning the flag was a form of free speech that should be protected.) Dukakis didn’t care if his wife was raped. (He dismissively answered a journalist’s silly question about whether he would favor the death if his wife were raped. The Republicans said that any red-blooded American should have gotten angry at the question.) Most cynically, the Republicans created Willie Horton as the enduring image of the campaign. Willie Horton was in prison for a violent crime, but, under the furlough program started by Dukakis’s (Republican) predecessor, he was allowed to leave jail for a weekend. While he was out, Horton raped and murdered a woman. The Republicans cried that this proved Dukakis, who as governor had signed the papers for Horton’s furlough, was soft on crime. But that wasn’t the main point. Horton was black. He was also a large and scary looking man. His victim was white. The Republican commercials clearly showed Horton’s face along with his victim’s. They didn’t mention his race, but they didn’t need to. The message they were trying to convey was quite clear: Dukakis doesn’t care if black thugs rape your white daughters; you just can’t trust Dukakis. Under Lee Atwater’s relentless smear campaign, Dukakis’s huge lead evaporated away. Bush won the election easily.
Four years later, Bill Clinton and his campaign team applied a crucial lesson from the Dukakis campaign. Dukakis’s team had chosen not to fight back. They believed that Dukakis should try to remain above the nastiness of the Republican’s negative campaign. They worried that, if they fought back, both sides would inevitably be covered in mud and Dukakis would ruin his reputation. Instead, by not fighting back, Dukakis allowed Bush to define who he was to the American voters. Bill Clinton did not repeat this mistake. Clinton’s team, led by the crazy and brilliant James Carville, set up a rapid response team to answer any Republican attacks immediately. The Democrats in 1992 were so effective that their response was usually laid out next to the attack in the very first news cycle of each story. As we all know, Bill Clinton had plenty of foibles to attack, but his campaign simply did not let the Bush team define who he was.
As I watch the 2012 Taiwanese presidential campaign, it seems to me that the Tsai team is not really ready to respond to KMT attacks. They have lots of spokespersons, and they are certainly not employing the Dukakis strategy of ignoring attacks, but they don’t always seem to be ready with a good answer right away. I think perhaps what they are missing is a good “opposition research” team.
The KMT clearly has an “oppo” team. We saw this with Su Chia-chuan’s farmhouse. The KMT attack was launched almost immediately after he was announced as the VP nominee. The KMT certainly had this info ready to use much earlier, but they waited until the best moment to use it. Had they attacked earlier, Tsai would have simply chosen someone else. By portraying Su as a corrupt politician right after Tsai announced her choice, they cast doubt on her judgment as well as causing so much trouble that there were calls for her to drop Su from the ticket. The current Yu-Chang case is also clear evidence that the KMT has an active opposition research team.
We really haven’t seen any evidence that Tsai’s campaign has invested at all in opposition research. This is somewhat of a surprise. The DPP has a long history of successfully digging up dirt on the KMT. Also, there is something controversial in every incumbent’s record, so challengers tend to invest more heavily in opposition research. However, Tsai is, for better or worse, not a conventional DPP politician. Part of this difference seems to be her hesitance to do anything and everything possible to win an election.
At any rate, what is missing right now is not so much Tsai’s opposition research against Ma Ying-jeou, but her opposition research against herself. One reason that Bill Clinton was so successful in deflecting the Bush campaign’s attacks is that his team had done extensive opposition research against their own candidate. Clinton’s team was ready for everything that the Bush team threw at them. They had already discovered all the potential attacks and prepared for them. I don’t think Tsai is prepared for the various attacks. Her team’s response was terrible in the farmhouse case. They had no idea how to respond at first, and by the time they got their discourse straight, it was too late. The damage was done. They have been better in the Yu-Chang case, but it feels to me like they are still a day behind. They seem to be reacting, rather than counter-attacking with an already prepared strategy.
 Atwater died of brain cancer before the 1992 election. He deserved it.