"Priority MD" was produced by Cold Harbor Films for the Republican National Committee; "Siding" was produced by Slingshot Media for the Democratic National Committee; "No Changes, No Reductions" was produced by Maverick Media for Bush-Cheney 2000. For transcripts of the ads, click.
From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
I'm with Clymer. The ad declares, "George Bush has a plan: add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare." But Bush doesn't have such a plan—or at least he didn't when the ad was already running in nine states. Bush's running mate Dick Cheney admitted as much on Meet the Press Sunday, when he said that the campaign was still working on its proposal. When Bush announces a plan next week, the ad may cease to be inaccurate, if it's still running. But the claim won't become true retrospectively. A political ad isn't like the draft of an article, where you can pencil in "TK" for information you need but don't have yet.
Furthermore, "Priority MD" makes other claims that almost certainly won't be validated by whatever Bush comes out with next week. After several scenes of Bush communing with old people, the ad cuts to the candidate declaring, "Every senior will have access to prescription-drug benefits." But the subsidized private-insurance approach Bush is said to favor, which is embodied in the Senate bill known as Breaux-Frist, might not give all seniors access to prescription-drug benefits. Insurance companies have indicated that they probably would not offer prescription-drug policies under such a plan because they don't think such policies would be profitable.
There may be ways to bribe insurance companies into offering such coverage. But there's no reason to assume that Bush has cracked this nut where others have failed. Unless he figures out how to get the insurance companies to actually offer insurance, Bush's promise of "access" may amount to the same access seniors currently have to prescription-drug plans they may or may not be able to afford and that may or may not exist. It's also worth noting that any workable version of a Breaux-Frist scheme would cost upward of $150 billion over 10 years. That's a lot less than Gore's plan, but Bush hasn't budgeted anything for his at all.
The Democratic National Committee's rapid-response ad, "Siding," is not so blatantly inaccurate. But it does seem unfair in a variety of ways. It critiques Bush's assumed "approach" by raising objections to an earlier version of the Breaux-Frist bill. Meanwhile, Gore is out on the hustings attacking Bush for having no plan at all. Either he's got a plan or he doesn't. It's also a bit cartoonish to frame the Medicare prescription issue as a simple matter of "siding with the big drug companies" vs. "fighting for our seniors." In fairness, Bush isn't against Gore's plan because he's beholden to Pfizer. (Is that a governor in your pocket, or just Viagra?) He's against it because he thinks it costs too much and wouldn't work well.
But I'd say the Gore ad abuses the issue itself more than it abuses Bush. It does this by ignoring the trade-offs involved. By committing the government to selling drug insurance to seniors at fixed prices, Gore has promised a vast, expanding, and open-ended new entitlement to be paid for by people who won't share in the benefit until age 65. Why should working people, who may or may not be able to afford even minimal health coverage under an HMO, pay taxes to provide improved fee-for-service coverage for seniors? Bush's basic position that such a new benefit should be tied to structural reforms in Medicare that would help contain overall costs—i.e., finding some way to prod seniors to join managed care plans—is eminently sensible.
As a political matter, Gore wins this round in the air war because he pledges to do more for seniors. But the question isn't merely what's best for the elderly. What the Republicans understand, but don't want to say, is that the conflict over Medicare prescription drugs also involves decisions about what's best for the rest of us.
From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg
Silly you. You think having "access" to something means being able to get it. Get your head out of the real world, Jacob! "Access" means Bush has signaled his vague approval of a bill that might become a law that might end up including incentives that might persuade insurers to offer prescription-drug coverage that might be affordable to you and might pay enough of the cost of your drugs to bring them within reach. Never doubt Bush's commitment that every senior will have that kind of access to prescription drugs.
I'm struck by the weird triangular dynamics among these commercials. The DNC ad is obviously trying to polarize the issue. It draws two battle lines: populism and universality. "The Bush approach is favored by big drug companies and leaves millions with no help," it says, quoting a friendly interest group. "Al Gore is taking on the big drug companies to pass a real prescription-drug benefit that covers all seniors." This is consistent with Gore's general strategy of exaggerating policy differences in order to focus voters' attention on issues where Democrats hold the advantage.
The Bush ad seeks exactly the opposite. It neutralizes distinctions between the candidates. "We will make prescription drugs available and affordable for every senior who needs them," says Bush. "[I] will keep the promise of Social Security. No changes. No reductions. No way." No changes? What about those personal investment accounts Bush used to talk about? Evidently he's afraid Gore might exploit that difference. So Bush blurs his platform into Gore's. They're both for universal prescription-drug coverage. They're both against messing with Social Security. The only difference between them is that Bush is a fresher face, a better man, and a stronger leader.
You'd think that the RNC would follow Bush's game plan, but it doesn't. The RNC plunges into the debate with guns blazing: "Under Clinton-Gore, prescription-drug prices have skyrocketed. … Gore opposed bipartisan reform." Next comes the trusty ideological grenade: Gore is "pushing a big-government plan that lets Washington bureaucrats interfere with what your doctors prescribe. The Gore prescription plan: bureaucrats decide. The Bush prescription plan: seniors choose." We've heard this rhetoric before. The RNC is trying to rerun the 1993-94 campaign against the Clinton health-care plan.
Six years ago, that campaign worked. It killed the Clinton plan and helped trigger the Gingrich revolution. But there are several problems with the idea of repeating it. First, Gore's plan isn't nearly as ambitious as Clinton's. It's confined to prescription drugs for seniors. Second, Gingrich sated and spoiled the public's appetite for rolling back government. You can't sell people more red meat after they've stuffed themselves on the last batch. Right now, they don't even want to look at another hamburger.
Third, by killing the Clinton plan, the GOP averted a world in which "Washington bureaucrats interfere with what your doctors prescribe." Instead, we ended up with a world in which HMO bureaucrats do that dirty work. In this world, a candidate who demonizes HMOs has the advantage over a candidate who demonizes government bureaucrats. And fourth, the hard-edged Republican message of 1994 ruins the feel-good Bush message of 2000. You can't complain that "Gore opposed bipartisan reform" and then, in the next breath, declare partisan war against his "big-government plan."
While arguing with the DNC about how this issue should be polarized, the RNC has embraced the underlying proposition that it should be polarized. In so doing, the RNC has engaged, inflamed, and elevated to even greater prominence a policy debate that the Bush campaign was by all accounts trying to avoid. Perhaps the RNC thinks its 1994-style counterattack on Gore's prescription-drug plan will halt Gore's momentum on that issue so that Bush can get back to talking about education. But when's the last time you saw the political press turn away from a good fistfight?