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.

Now we see it. I don't agree with you that the DNC would have been wise to postpone the ad indefinitely. There is a distinction between ad hominem nastiness and substantive criticism, and Gore is right to stand on it. The DNC spot is negative, but in an entirely different way than the Bush ad was. This one doesn't slam Bush personally, raise an issue of "character," or question his integrity. Instead, it focuses on a single issue that Bush himself has raised: taking care of children. The ad says that we should doubt Bush's commitment to extending health coverage because he has failed at providing it to children in Texas, as demonstrated by the recent ruling by Judge Justice (Learned Hand and Minor Wisdom must have been unavailable). And in its final lines, the ad suggests that there's a larger pattern here. "The Bush record. It's becoming an issue," the announcer concludes. In other words, you can bet your Adam Clymer we're going to make it an issue.

How do we decide whether charges that Bush has done a lousy job in Texas on all the various issues Gore is likely to raise between now and Election Day are fair or not? I think you have to distinguish between problems Bush can reasonably be blamed for and those he cannot. Texas is a state with a large population of poor people, many of them Mexican immigrants, and a long tradition of not spending very much on its government. This was as true when it had Democratic governors like Ann Richards as it is today. That Texas ranks near the bottom in a whole host of social statistics is no more to Bush's discredit than Arkansas' similarly low rankings were to Bill Clinton in 1992—when another Bush tried to use them against him. Being 49th in Medicaid coverage of children would be a scandal if Bush had inherited a state that was in the top 10. But he inherited a state that was somewhere near where it is today in the rankings. Even if Bush were the greatest governor in history, he wouldn't be able to create Minnesota-style government in Texas.

On the other hand, it is reasonable to judge Bush on whether government has gotten better during the five years he's been in office. And the fairest way to do so is to ask whether Texas has improved relative to what has happened in other states. When it comes to education, Bush has produced a series of results that look impressive when set against either those of his predecessors in Texas or those of other governors who have faced similar problems. Texas may still be way behind most states in test scores. But while many states have improved a bit in recent years, scores in Texas have risen more quickly. The Gore campaign has tried to pick holes in Bush's education numbers, but they haven't gotten very far because Bush's case is solid. If the DNC runs an ad attacking Bush because Texas teen-agers do poorly on the SATs, I'll be the first to call it bogus.

When it comes to health care for children, however, the Gore side has a solid point. Bush has never had a strong commitment to extending coverage for poor children. Indeed, Bush tried to limit coverage under the CHIP, a federal program that provides medical coverage for children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Though Bush eventually signed a bill extending coverage to parents with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line, he preferred the lower level of 150 percent to save the state money. Bush was afraid that the higher level would result in more families qualifying for Medicaid, which is paid for partly by the states and partly by the feds. Nor has Bush done much to improve the low quality of Texas' Medicaid coverage for children. The lawsuit cited in the ad was filed against the Texas department that administers the program in 1993, when Ann Richards was governor. But Bush has had responsibility since 1995. And as Judge Justice's ruling made clear, the department has continued to do an abysmal job even for those children who are nominally covered.

I'd say this a negative ad that's fair, substantive, and even useful. 

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.