Bush Torpedoes Himself
Posted Friday, Sept. 1, 2000, at 11:30 PM
"Really" was produced by Cold Harbor Films for the Republican National Committee. For a transcript of the ad, click. To watch the ad on the Washington Post Web site, click here.
From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg
Now I have to take it all back. This is the stupidest, most self-destructive blunder I've witnessed in a presidential campaign. Worse than Michael Dukakis in the tank, worse than Walter Mondale saying he'd raise taxes, worse than any dumb thing Dan Quayle ever said. Both sides in this race knew the climate they were campaigning in. They knew people were tired of attack politics. They knew negative ads would backfire; John McCain proved it in South Carolina. They knew you could hit the opponent hard on issues but not on character. The Bush people knew where the line was, and they crossed it.
Why is this mistake so terrible? Because the objective factors in the election—peace, prosperity, sharp declines in crime and welfare—have always favored Gore. Bush's only advantage lies in subjective factors: trustworthiness, decency, optimism, leadership. Now he's wrecked that advantage. I keep thinking of that Russian sub blown open in the Arctic Ocean by its own torpedo. How did those Russian sailors feel as their vessel went down? That must be how it's going to feel in the Bush campaign.
I can understand the Republicans' error, to a point. They were getting killed on prescription drugs. They wanted to steer the campaign back to their strong suits: credibility and character. RNC operatives are quoted in the papers today confirming all this. They wanted to inoculate the public against Gore's upcoming ads by underscoring doubts about his trustworthiness. They thought this could be done without provoking a backlash, as long as the presentation was light and funny.
They tried to insulate Bush from the harshness of the message. They put the words in the mouth of an anonymous narrator. They used a woman's voice. They phrased the criticism in "a humorous way," according to Bush communications director Karen Hughes. Rather than deliver the caustic images directly to your screen, they put them on a television in a staged kitchen—a set within your set—giving you the comfort of extra distance. No human being appears in the kitchen. The TV set chirps away, like a bomb ticking in an empty room. Who planted it? Nobody knows. Certainly not Bush. He's far away, talking about educating our children. Look, Ma, no hands! It's the perfect negative ad: no fingerprints.
Or so the Bush folks thought. But they miscalculated. They completely botched the delivery. To poke fun at your opponent's credibility, particularly when addressing an electorate so allergic to negativity, you need an exquisitely light touch. The right moment was just after the Democratic convention, when reporters expected a response from Bush. The right person to deliver it was Bush himself, who has the charm and good nature to puncture deceit with gentle wryness, making his audience laugh. The right approach was oblique, leaving voters to draw the conclusion that Gore is a liar.
This ad fails in all three respects. It's way too late. There's no context for a shot at Gore's credibility. Republicans are claiming today that the ad is substantive because it addresses Gore's pledge to launch his presidency with campaign reform. But that pledge is now two weeks old. Gore is talking about prescription drugs, an almost wholly unrelated subject. So the RNC ad comes across as a punch out of the blue, allowing Democrats to frame the contest (as they're doing today) as a choice between the candidate of issues and the candidate of personal attacks.
Second, the messenger is wrong. The Bush team evidently thought it was safer to question Gore's credibility in a disembodied ad than in Bush's own words. They imagined that a harsh message in Bush's mouth would appear to chill his warmth. They got it backward. They needed Bush's warmth to soften the pitch. By detaching the message from any human presence—confining it to a TV set in an empty room—they made it cold and callous. And they hit the message way too hard. The words are as grating as the narrator's inflections: "There's Al Gore reinventing himself on television again. Like I'm not going to notice. … Really. … Yeah and I invented the remote control." That's not light humor. It's heavy-handed sarcasm.
I'm sure the RNC focus-grouped this ad, as campaigns usually do, to make sure it would work and wouldn't backfire. But they missed the point. On the Labor Day weekend of a presidential race, a taboo-breaking ad like this one is less consequential than the media coverage it provokes. Barring an extraordinary purchase of air time, more people will see the coverage than will see the ad alone. And you can't focus-group the coverage, because it doesn't exist until you've aired the ad. In this case, the coverage is merciless. "Bush Approves New Attack Ad Mocking Gore," says the New York Times front page. "GOP Goes on Attack in New Ad," agrees the Washington Post. The ad's message is almost completely obscured. All that comes across is that it's "nasty" and that Bush, by endorsing it, violated his pledge to run a positive race.
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.