Trust No One

Political ads dissected and explained.
Sept. 28 2000 11:30 PM

Trust No One

"Let's See," "Notebook," and "Education Recession" were produced by Cold Harbor Films for the Republican National Committee. For transcripts of the ads, click here. Click here to see the ad on SpeakOut.com.

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From: Chris Suellentrop

To: Jacob Weisberg

For decades, there was a simple playbook to follow for a Republican victory: Portray your Democratic opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal who is soft on crime. Bush the Elder executed this strategy to perfection against Michael Dukakis in 1988, throwing in the accusation of "flag-burner" for good measure. But in 1992, Bush the First faced Bill Clinton, a New Democrat who advocated (slightly) smaller government and who had no qualms about executing mentally retarded people. What to do?

Lets see Bush decided to run on the "trust" issue, betting that the American people would never fall for a hunky, silver-tongued Arkansan when they already had a stable, secure WASP as president. Even though the gambit failed spectacularly, Bob Dole gave the Trust Strategy another go-round in '96. He lost too, but in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal the "trust" campaign is still the Republican template against New Democrats. Is the third time the charm for the Trust Strategy?

Most Republicans seem to think so. That's why Rick Lazio runs TV ads that say "Clinton? You just can't trust her." And it's why the Republican National Committee released an ad blasting Gore's credibility after the Democratic convention, when Bush was plummeting in the polls.

Click on photo to view the ad

But now the RNC has changed its mind. The shift away from the "Who can you trust?" campaign began with a confused ad called "Let's See" that attacked Gore's credibility by citing his 1996 fund-raising abuses, then took a wild swing at his education plan. Since then, the RNC has abandoned the Trust Strategy altogether in favor of a frontal assault on Gore's positions on health care and education. Last week the RNC released "Notebook," an ad that accuses Gore of wanting to charge seniors "a new $600-a-year government access fee" to receive prescription drugs. It also says Gore wants to put seniors into a "government HMO." Today the RNC began airing an ad that declares a national "education recession." (The ads do continue one trend from the "trust" ads. Whenever Gore is shown in an RNC ad, he is shown on a TV screen, à la Max Headroom.)

The use of that word "recession" suggests that Bush wants to tar Gore as the H.W. Bush in this race, the out-of-touch Washington insider, and to portray himself as the optimistic, change-bringing Clinton. And the abandonment of the Trust Strategy is another way for Bush to distance himself from his father's unsuccessful '92 campaign. But the distortions in the latest RNC ads are reminiscent of Bush '88—the "barrage of political nastiness" that you say characterizes the second stage of any Bush campaign. What Bush calls a "government HMO" is actually Medicare. The $600 "fee" is what the annual cost of premiums will be in 10 years. The education ad says American students "rank last in the world" in math and physics. Oops—that's last among the industrialized nations.

So the new ads are deceptive and nasty. But they're already working. If you believe William Saletan, this election's over, and Bush should just pick up his $70 million and go home. The RNC doesn't believe that, and neither do I. But Saletan's right—the issues currently favor Gore. Most voters think Gore is a weaselly, untrustworthy politician, but they still say they're going to vote for him. What to do when the fundamentals favor your opponent? Change the fundamentals.

From: Jacob Weisberg

To: Chris Suellentrop

When you watch these last several RNC ads in chronological order, you notice a progression. They get milder and they get better. I think this evolution reflects the critical reaction to the Bush campaign's early resort to negativity as well as a recognition by Republicans that the character issue alone isn't going to return the White House to them.

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