Lazio Takes His Licks

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

Lazio Takes His Licks

"News Update: HMOs" and "News Update: Hate Crimes" were produced for the Hillary Clinton campaign by "Team Hillary," a combined effort of Mandy Grunwald, Devito/Verdi, and Mark Penn. "Guess What" was produced for the Rick Lazio campaign by the Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome Agency. Click here to see the Clinton ads on FreedomChannel.com. Click for transcripts of the ads discussed.

From: Jacob Weisberg

To: William Saletan

Everyone complains about the dishonesty of negative advertising, but sometimes running positive spots seems even phonier. The New York Senate race is a case in point. Here are two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, who have been itching to air their differences. But for more than a month, we've had to watch gauzy, upbeat commercials that ring utterly false because neither wanted to be the one to initiate on-air hostilities.

lazio Now they've both gone negative. For those keeping score, Clinton struck first (though her campaign says Lazio's started it by making negative pronouncements about her elsewhere). For fear of driving her own "negatives" up, Clinton herself does not appear in her two 15-second attack spots. Rather, she uses the old "news update" gimmick. Teletype copy scrolls across the screen and is read by an announcer. The first of the two ads charges Lazio with sharing the position of the Senate Republicans who recently killed a bill giving patients the right to sue HMOs. The second ad claims that Lazio opposed a New York state Senate bill mandating enhanced penalties for hate crimes and then changed his mind after it passed. Both end with the tag, "Rick Lazio: The more you know, the more you wonder."

The bigger goal here is to undermine the notion that Lazio is a moderate Republican in the mold of, say, Rudy Giuliani. The first ad implies that Lazio is in the pocket of the medical insurance industry and lacks sympathy for the kind of people who get taken advantage of by HMOs. The second ad gets across the notion that Lazio is unsympathetic to minorities who are victims of hate crimes. Hillary Clinton piggybacks on the loaded language that congressional Democrats have adopted in framing these issues. Who could oppose patients' rights? Who could fail to be against hate crimes? No one, when the debate is framed in such a demagogic way. 

In fact there are reasonable, even liberal arguments on both sides of these two issues. HMOs have done wonders in containing health-care costs. Do we really want to encourage lawsuits that may have the effect of putting them out of business? And why do some crimes deserve extra condemnation (and penalties) because of their thought-content? But the proof that Hillary has Rick by the short and curlies is that he doesn't even try to raise any of the legitimate arguments on the other side of these issues. Instead, he tacitly accepts that her positions are right and claims he actually shares them. "Hillary Clinton has already started running attack ads designed to fool you about me," Lazio says in his counter-negative response ad. "Her ads are simply untrue. I voted for a patients' bill of rights, and I oppose hate crimes."

Though Lazio wins points for actually appearing in his own negative commercial, his response elides the truth on both topics. Notice the Clintonian phraseology. Lazio says he voted for "a patients' bill of rights." But he didn't vote for the patients' bill of rights. Lazio voted for a measure supported by the House Republican leadership that was designed to defuse the Democratic legislation that passed the House last year (with many Republican votes). The GOP alternative would have allowed patients only a very limited right to sue HMOs in federal court. Lazio responds to criticism that he flip-flopped on hate-crimes legislation by saying he's "against hate crimes." Gee Rick, glad to hear it. Now what's your position on drug dealing in schoolyards? Again, Lazio's former stance against hate-crimes legislation is defensible. He just doesn't care to defend it in the middle of a campaign.

My bottom line on the exchange: Hillary's liberal demagoguery finds its match in Lazio's weaselly efforts to evade his own views. Neither of them is lying, but neither is telling the truth either. This kind of thing could give negative ads a bad name. 

From: William Saletan

To: Jacob Weisberg

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.