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.
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.