Lazio Takes His Licks

Political ads dissected and explained.
June 28 2000 3:00 AM

Lazio Takes His Licks

(Continued from Page 1)

To: Jacob Weisberg

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Watching these ads, I wonder how any Republican gets elected in New York. (I come from Texas, where it's the other way around.) Basically, here's what happens in this exchange: Clinton rattles off a couple of issues on which she toes the liberal line and Lazio doesn't. And Lazio, far from quarreling, replies that he's a good liberal, too.

Just a few weeks into the GOP's Lazio-for-Giuliani substitution, the strategic layout of this race is already clear: The Democrats have the issues, and the Republicans have the candidate. Since New Yorkers are relatively liberal, Clinton gains votes by focusing their attention on health care, education, hate crimes, etc. And since Clinton is a carpetbagger with a dangerously high unfavorable rating, Lazio gains votes by focusing attention on the candidates' roots, personalities, and campaign styles.

Given this layout, it's helpful to Clinton that Lazio, unlike Giuliani, comes from Congress. Whereas the mayoralty is all about administration, judgment, personality, and tone, Congress is all about casting votes on issues. So the Clinton camp can sift through stacks of records, digging up Lazio's votes on all the issues that work to the Democrats' advantage in New York. Here we have a case in point: the "patients' bill of rights." In the coming months, Clinton will no doubt familiarize us with many others.

The striking thing about the two Clinton ads is their visual sparseness: All we see is the facts of each piece of legislation (or, more accurately, the Clinton campaign's version of the facts) typed out on the screen. Evidently you're supposed to read it as though the ad were on paper. "Hillary supports it. In the House, Rick Lazio voted against the bill, siding with the Republican leadership," says the HMO ad. "Hillary fought for the bill. Rick Lazio was opposed," says the hate-crimes ad. The language sounds like it's straight out of a campaign poll. The equivalent poll question might say: "Hillary supports the patients' bill of rights. Lazio voted against it. Knowing this, are you more or less likely to vote for Lazio?" Then the pollsters would tally the responses and confirm that this "information" steers impressionable voters away from Lazio and toward Clinton. Usually, a campaign's media consultants add imagery and pictures of the candidate when they convert these kinds of poll findings into ads. In this case, however, it looks as though they've simply cut and pasted the effective messages from the poll into the ads. I guess that's what you do when you own most of the issues in the race and little of the personal appeal.

Lazio, of course, wants to steer the race back from issues to personality. That's why he, unlike Clinton, appears in his ad. "So why is she doing this?" he asks. "Because it's a lot easier for Mrs. Clinton to attack me than to name a single thing she has ever done for New York." Exit health care, enter carpetbagging. That's how this argument is going to run from now till Election Day. We'd better get used to it.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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