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.

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.

The first of the three spots, "Let's See," is actually a revision of the sarcastic, widely panned "Really." Gore's still blathering on a TV set in the kitchen, but a soothing piano soundtrack has been added, and the female announcer criticizes him directly instead of ridiculing him. The voice we hear complains about the 1996 campaign-finance scandal and then hops to the accusation that Gore's education accountability plan lacks teeth because it "doesn't require any real testing."

While this ad is less of a turnoff than its ancestor, it continues to suffer from a lack of coherence. The essential flaw is that the two problems that it tries to connect—the Buddhist temple fund-raiser and Gore's flimsy education standards—are miles apart. What's more, neither issue is precisely about credibility, the theme that is supposed to unite them. You can tell that this ad is a bit afraid of its own tail from the way it buries its real slam in the text of the mandatory disclosure line: "GoreWillSayAnything.com Paid for by the Michigan Republican State Committee." To have the announcer utter that comment would have sounded too personal and harsh. But by not saying this aloud, the ad pulls its punch and comes across as both vicious and timid, like a bully who hits and runs.

By the time the RNC released "Notebook" just over a week later, Bush's strategists recognized that even more modulated Gore-slamming wasn't turning the race around. So the approach of their negative ads became less personal still. Instead of focusing on Gore's untrustworthiness, "Notebook" concentrates its fire on his favorite policy. It's a classic "contrast" ad about the two candidates' prescription-drug plans. That the pictures are mostly of text being typed out on a yellow notebook is supposed to underscore its substantiality. But while the ad isn't nasty, it's far more deceptive than either of its predecessors.

You made the point about the $600 "access fee" that is actually a projected premium in 2008. But I think the smarmiest charge comes in the repeated assertion that Gore's plan would force seniors into a "Government HMO." Bush began making this metaphorical point a while ago. His argument was that Gore's government-run plan would operate like an HMO, since administrators would decide what medications to cover. As long as he used the word "like," Bush was within the bounds of fair comment. But in this ad, the RNC drops the metaphor and turns the charge literal, as Bush has also been doing lately out on the stump. And as a factual statement, the charge is simply false. Gore's prescription-drug plan wouldn't be a Government HMO any more than Medicare is now a Government HMO. "Gore's plan: When seniors turn 64, they must join a drug HMO, selected by Washington, or they're on their own," the announcer continues. That's not only untrue, it's what would happen under Bush's proposed system (which the ad describes as one under which "seniors choose"). Gore's plan envisions retirees receiving drug benefits under fee-for-service Medicare. It's Bush's alternative that would create pressure on recipients to join managed care plans. I happen to think that's a sound idea, by the way. But Bush is denying his own plan's intended consequences and attributing them to his opponent. I guess we're into the "he who smelt it, dealt it" phase of the campaign.

The rhetorical softening continues in the most recent RNC spot, "Education Recession." This ad, too, is based on a metaphor. Schools are in such bad shape that it's as if they're in a "recession." The use of this term is a sly bit of political marketing. Obviously, the economy is in great shape, which is Bush's principal problem as a candidate. So the Republicans are trying to implant the notion—liminally, if not subliminally—that things haven't been so good under Clinton and Gore anyhow. And while the statistics in this ad about how badly schools are doing are all disputable, Bush keeps his main charge defensible by leaving it vague.

Style does more of the work in this one. As the narrator explains that Clinton and Gore are "failing our kids," we watch a slow-moving black-and-white slide show of abandoned, anomic children. When the narrator switches to discussing what Bush has done for education in Texas, the ad turns into a vivid color movie about students learning to read and proudly graduating from high school. This visual gimmick begs the question of which candidate's education record is stronger. Whose schools do you prefer, it asks—Dorothea Lange's or Steven Spielberg's?

"Education Recession" is a solid, slick spot much more like the well-produced Bush campaign ads than the previous, clumsy RNC ones. The credit line "Cold Harbor Films" remains the same. But the rapid improvement suggests that folks in Austin, Texas, may be supervising their B-team a bit more closely.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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