BOB GARFIELD: The dark art of the political slur is now a commodity for export. Tyler Harber is a political strategist and a vice president at Wilson Research Strategies. He’s worked on presidential campaigns for John McCain, George H.W. and George W. Bush. He’s also worked on a number of international campaigns in places such as Ukraine, Iceland and Trinidad, to name but a few. Tyler, welcome to On the Media.
TYLER HARBER: Oh, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: My sense is that the American way in the beginning of campaigns is a lot of soft focus, slow motion of a, of a smiling politician, his sleeves rolled up, his jacket slung over his shoulder, with his family on the steps of the church, followed quickly by attack ads in which his opponent is depicted in super slow motion, all in gray, looking like the spawn of Satan.
TYLER HARBER: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, am I right in my characterization and, secondly, how does that technique sell overseas?
TYLER HARBER: Everyone hates negative political ads all over the globe, but the fact is that they work all over the globe. What the American consultants bring to the picture is focus, focus on identifying and framing your candidate and focus on identifying and framing your opponent. And with that comes both those positive ads, you know, the family, smiling candidate standing on the steps of the church, as well as those negative ads of portraying your opponent like a devil.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, congratulations -
TYLER HARBER: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - I guess. [LAUGHS]
TYLER HARBER: You have to look at it like this. A lot of the times we are helping candidates win that are pro-West, so in addition to exporting a strategy that is a winning strategy, it gives us an opportunity to extend a non-formal way of supporting a pro-U.S. candidate.
BOB GARFIELD: In the United States there was a long tradition among populist candidates of playing to the anger of the people. The Tea Party is a movement that is built on just that. Maybe Tea Partiers will get people coming out to the polls to throw the bums out. In less stable countries than the United States, is there not the risk that people will not go to the polls to throw the bums out, they will carry flaming torches to the Parliament and actually get violent? What do you do to make sure that you’re not too effective in your advertising?
TYLER HARBER: That’s the biggest fear is creating violence. And we have to make sure that we kind of push it right up to the line, that we make them mad about the status quo and that we don't incite that violence.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you seen campaigns where an American consultant does press a hot button that results in death and destruction?
TYLER HARBER: You know, I, I think in Ukraine in 2005, after Yushchenko was poisoned and the Orange Revolution started, on the fringe of the Orange Revolution I think that there was some violence. And I don't think anyone ultimately died, but I think that we walked it a little too far perhaps at, at times. It’s hard to point to, because, you know, one message, by the time it penetrates, you know, there are a number of different things that affect the potential for violence. We just want to make sure that we don't push it to violence.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned Ukraine. This was in the Parliamentary election in 2007, where you went after Viktor Yanukovych,who, to my way of thinking, is kind of a pro-Putin thug. But you didn't go after him personally, although he has a very long record of ripe material for attacking. You went after his party, in general. And the ad, which is in Russian, sounded like this:
[CLIP IN RUSSIAN]
TYLER HARBER: There are two kind of political fat cats, government types, sitting there talking back and forth about how much money they're making, and the camera kind of pans away and it shows this little tiny person standing among the money. And they look back and forth at each other, and they're like, who is that? Oh, well, that’s the little people of Ukraine. And they're like, oh, you know, we don't care about those little people. We're the government. And the little person in a very small voice, tries to say, hey, but, you know, this is our country, too. And the takeaway is Yanukovych’s government is getting rich while the regular Ukrainians are suffering.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And so, who’s the president of Ukraine now, I – I don’t know, I forget?
TYLER HARBER: The president of Ukraine was the same man that, that we – [LAUGHS]
[BOB LAUGHS] - that we tried to demonstrate that was corrupt.
BOB GARFIELD: Viktor Yanukovych.
TYLER HARBER: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
BOB GARFIELD: The boss is back.
TYLER HARBER: The boss is back!
BOB GARFIELD: As you well [LAUGHS] know, around the world there is quite a bit of ambivalence about the United States. Some people hate us and some people really [LAUGHS] hate us. And I'm curious whether the presence of an American political strategist ever itself becomes a bone of contention where some party that hires you is accused of being under the influence of the United States or the CIA or, you know, some sort of shadowy forces.
TYLER HARBER: Ninety-plus percent of our clients want us to come in secretly. In Trinidad earlier this year, the political consultants for the opposition were actually held in customs for 20-plus hours and then put ‘em back on a plane to the United States. And that’s not the first time it’s happened. You want to make sure that you don't let anyone know before you go over there, and we go through great lengths to make sure that we stay secret.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I must say I don't even like most political advertising in our country. Are you taking the worst part of our democracy and sharing it with the nascent democracies of Europe and Asia and Africa, South America? Do you struggle with your conscience?
TYLER HARBER: I don't struggle with my conscience because what wins elections is laying the groundwork and building a good strategy that identifies a persuadable population, persuades them and then gets them to the polls, in one capacity or the other. And negative advertising sometimes is part of that. It’s a tool that we have to use to win a race.
BOB GARFIELD: War is hell, pass the ammunition?
TYLER HARBER: Yeah. No political consultant is proud of negative advertising, you know, but in the long run we're focusing on pointing out something about some candidate that the people should know before they make their choice.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, man. Thank you very, very much.
TYLER HARBER: All right, thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Tyler Harber is a political strategist and vice president and director of the Political and Public Affairs Division at Wilson Research Strategies.