'Tis the Season for Attack Ads

| Mon Oct. 9, 2006 1:13 PM EDT

California talk radio host Melanie Morgan and her conservative nonprofit Move America Forward were hard at work this weekend raising money for the organization's latest smear campaign, which, of all likely targets, will take aim at Bill Clinton. The ad blitz, according to one of several mass emails that went out to MAF supporters over the weekend, will "rebuke" Clinton for his "recent efforts to undermine support for the war on terrorism -- on national television." (Emphasis theirs.)

MAF, it seems, was moved to action after Clinton's recent appearance on Fox News Sunday (ostensibly to discuss the Clinton Global Initiative), during which he was asked by Chris Wallace whether his administration did enough to rid the world of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. "At least I tried," a visibly heated Clinton responded. "That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try." Clinton went on to criticize the current administration for disregarding the counterterrorism strategy he left for his successor and for marginalizing counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke.

Move America Forward, which has previously branded Nancy Pelosi a "domestic enemy" and has launched a "U.N. Out of U.S." ad campaign, is expected to debut its latest attack ad tomorrow on CNN and CNN Headline News. The ad (view it here) opens in typical fashion – a tight shot of Osama bin Laden that leads to a 9/11 montage, rendered in black-and-white for dramatic effect. Meanwhile, a narrator intones: "Terrorists want to kill us. They've attacked over and over again. Our president didn't have his eye on the ball. He didn't make the war on terrorism his top priority. But enough about Bill Clinton."

While attack ads are clearly not the province of one political party or the other, questions have been raised about whether Move America Forward, which describes itself as a "non-partisan, not-for-profit," is pushing the envelope on its nonprofit status with its clearly partisan agenda. The Contra Costa Times explored this question in early September:

The IRS prohibits groups eligible for tax-deductible donations from engaging in partisan activity. While such groups can speak out on policy matters and perform a small amount of lobbying, they cannot urge support for a particular candidate or party, said Bill Steiner, a Sacramento-based IRS spokesman….

A nonprofit group does not have to explicitly express support for a particular candidate or party to be in violation, Steiner said. For instance, the IRS launched a probe of the liberal All Saints Church in Pasadena after an anti-war homily delivered by rector George Regas just before the 2004 election.