Bush Torpedoes Himself
Posted Friday, Sept. 1, 2000, at 11:30 PM
What a way to open the fall campaign. The media now get a four-day weekend to roast Bush for being the first candidate to go negative. He'll be asked about nothing else. What's he going to do? Walk away from the microphones? Deny responsibility? Yelp that he's only hitting back? There's no good answer. He missed his chance to head off this mess. No matter how many puerile, trigger-happy aides sit around the table, one person in a presidential campaign is supposed to have the maturity and good judgment to quash smartass ideas like this one: the candidate. Bush is the last candidate who can afford to flunk that test. And he just did.
From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
There are two stages to a Bush campaign—to any Bush campaign. In the first stage, good-guy candidate Bush calls for a positive campaign that doesn't tear anyone else down. He wants to "change the tone" supposedly set by his more negative opponent. In the second stage, which arrives when the thought occurs that Bush might lose, the campaign changes the tone itself by unleashing a sudden barrage of political nastiness. When people point out the contradiction, the candidate either pretends that the attacks on his opponent aren't happening, or that they're perfectly fair, or that he doesn't have anything to do with them, as Bush did to reporters this morning.
Sometimes this two-step, positive-to-negative transition works, sometimes it doesn't. It was a successful campaign strategy for George H.W. Bush against Dukakis in 1988 but not against Clinton in 1992. It worked for George W. Bush in the South Carolina primary, where he stopped the John McCain surge. Will it work for him against Al Gore? Though I'm less confident than you are that this ad is a catastrophic and fatal blunder, I think the sudden escalation of negativity is likely to damage Bush much more than it hurts his opponent.
Part of the reason is that Bush himself is being so gratuitously two-faced about it. Last week, Bush made the RNC pull an ad he deemed out of keeping with the campaign he wanted to run. Now he says boys will be boys—and what's it got to do with him anyway? This is so transparently dishonest that I don't think Bush will get away with it.
But the bigger problem is that the ad itself is so witless. "Like I'm not going to notice," says the unseen female narrator, of Al Gore supposedly "reinventing himself on television." Like she learned grammar from listening to George W. Bush. And the charge against Gore has never been "reinventing himself on television." It's merely reinventing himself. The "on television" suffix is a way of shoehorning the accusation into the complicated distancing framework that you appropriately deride. "Another round of this and I'll sell my television," the narrator concludes. That's supposed to be funny? When you get angry at a television, you don't sell it. You throw it out the window or put a brick through the screen. Many viewers will respond to this obnoxious sarcasm the way I did, by thinking that the invisible housewife who yells at her television is a lot more annoying than Al Gore.
The ad's complaint against Gore isn't even minimally coherent. There are perfectly good illustrations that the Republicans could have used of Gore's seeming to reinvent himself over the past year—his changes of wardrobe, tone, and message. Instead, they cite only one example: Gore appearing at a Buddhist temple to raise money and then, four years later, calling for campaign-finance reform. You could call this hypocrisy or self-contradiction. But it's certainly not a matter of "reinvention." I know why the ad uses this example—the Bush campaign was clearly desperate to begin airing its precious footage of Gore with a Buddhist monk, which is Republican synecdoche for the vice president being a dirty rotten scoundrel. But in this context, it's neither amusing nor especially damning.
The whole thing reeks of a bunch of Republican amateurs having too many beers and trying to imitate Bill Hillsman. They have crafted a spot that will appeal to those you might call Gore bores—people who already hate the vice president passionately. But their scorn is unlikely to persuade the audience they need to reach, which consists of people who are still on the fence. In sum, Al Gore isn't going to make anyone sell her television. Bush's ad, on the other hand, will make a lot of people turn theirs off.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of George W. Bush on Slate's Table of Contents by Jeff Mitchell/Reuters.