Messing With Texas

Political ads dissected and explained.
Sept. 8 2000 3:00 AM

Messing With Texas

"Judge" was produced by Democratic Victory 2000 for the Democratic National Committee. For a transcript of the ad, click. 

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From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

Judge In principle, I'm not sure this commercial is a good idea. Obviously, it was conceived long ago, as a replay of the gubernatorial-record-bashing strategy Bush's father used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992. But after Bush made an Adam Clymer of himself with that snarky attack ad a week ago, the Gore campaign (or the DNC, or whatever you want to call it) might have been wiser to postpone this spot indefinitely, leaving Bush to take all the heat for running purely negative ads.

Having decided to launch the attack, however, the Democrats have executed that decision well. They've maintained a measure of arguable moral superiority by targeting Bush's record, whereas the Republican National Committee spot targeted Gore's character. And they've mitigated the gratuitousness of the assault by framing it in the ad's first two sentences as a response to Bush's actions: "George W. Bush has a plan for children's health care. But why hasn't he done it in Texas?"

The Democrats depersonalize and lend objectivity to their critique by expressing it entirely through statistics and a court ruling. "Texas ranks 49th out of 50 in providing health coverage to kids," the spot asserts, based on newspaper accounts. Next comes the judicial artillery: "It's so bad a federal judge just ruled Texas must take immediate corrective action." The image of a falling gavel pounds home the impression of apolitical truth. The words "Judge's findings" hang over the screen as the ad recites the court's harsh findings. Being from Texas, I remember this particular judge, William Wayne Justice, as precisely the kind of liberal activist Bush says he is. But Justice's robe (even his surname is symbolically perfect) makes his criticism of Bush's Texas administration appear instantly credible. No wonder the spot is titled "Judge."

Does this posture of objectivity deter the Democrats from drawing moral conclusions about Bush? Not at all. The announcer reports that according to the court, "Bush's administration broke a promise to improve health care for kids. Texas failed to inform families of health coverage available to a million children." Below "Judge's findings," the screen displays a banner newspaper headline: "Texas kids robbed of health benefits." Note the loaded verbs. Bush "broke a promise" and "robbed" the helpless children whose plaintive faces appear on the screen. An administrative failure to provide a free government service to people who didn't apply for it becomes, in the language of this commercial, a crime. All the while, the DNC feigns passivity, leaving the condemnation of Bush's performance in the mouths of the judge and the media.

The most peculiar thing about the ad is the closing line: "The Bush record—it's becoming an issue." You and I have mocked the bogus imperatives in these ads for months. Since they're nominally "issue" ads rather than election ads, they can't end by saying, "Vote against Bush." So they usually end with something like, "Call George W. Bush and tell him to stop stealing the life savings of our seniors!" But here we have a closing line that isn't even an imperative. It doesn't say, "Look at the Bush record" or "The Bush record—consider the issue." It just says the Bush record is "becoming an issue."

Who's making it an issue? Not us, says the DNC. Objective forces—the courts and the press—are making Bush's health-care record a hot topic in the presidential race. With that, the DNC has scored a breakthrough in issue advertising, replacing the bogus imperative with the bogus nonimperative. Minor-league spin artists may be content to pretend that the ads they're running aren't election-oriented. But pretending that the ads you're running aren't political or even subjective—that's major-league stuff.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

As you note, this is the ad that the DNC was ready to run last week when the Republicans started airing "Really," a spot that left you rather unimpressed. Sharing your view that the sarcastic attack on Gore was likely to backfire, the Democrats decided to hold off on the principle that you shouldn't interrupt your enemy while he is committing suicide.

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