Warm Fuzzies

Political ads dissected and explained.
Oct. 12 2000 3:00 AM

Warm Fuzzies

"Trust" was produced by Maverick Media for Bush-Cheney 2000 and the Republican National Committee. For a transcript of the ad, click.

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From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

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This is the ad Bush should have been running all along. Stripped of the illusion that he could coast to victory on Clinton fatigue, he has finally buckled down to the business of building a substantive campaign theme. And it's a good one. The Bush team has reframed the traditional conservative dichotomy—government vs. the individual—to match Bush's mushy, upbeat persona.

The opening shot sets the tone of familial warmth: Bush smiles into the camera with a beatific twinkle as he affirms his confidence in the viewer. Where an old-style Republican would be more comfortable railing against big government, Bush turns instead to the positive side of his party's message: "That's the difference in philosophy between my opponent and me. He trusts government. I trust you." As Bush speaks, this shot reappears throughout the ad. The loving gaze never falters. You have the feeling the governor is about to slide a hand around your back to give you a pat of friendly intimacy or even paternal reassurance.

The principal elements of Bush's agenda fall perfectly into place: "I trust you to invest some of your own Social Security money for higher returns. I trust local people to run their own schools. … I trust you with some of the budget surplus." It's a wonder Bush's ad makers are only now learning to package his proposals with such elegant simplicity. They were so busy alternating nods to compassion with nods to conservatism that they'd forgotten how the two themes could work together.

In case Bush's voice fails to implant the ad's key words in your memory, they appear intermittently on the screen beside him: "responsibility," "accountable," "trust," "local control," "performance," "options," "surplus," "trust" (again), "local control" (again). Between gazes, we see the usual images of black and brown schoolchildren, along with a few hardhats and a mother and child. "I believe in government that is responsible to the people," the governor explains. Bush isn't trying to rip welfare money out of the hands of the undeserving. He's leaving that shtick to Pat Buchanan. Bush, inverting the politics of Bill Bradley and other old-fashioned liberals, is running on an appeal to goodness and faith: I'm from the anti-government party, and I'm here to help.

By extending the ad to a full minute, Bush gives himself time not only to explain his tax cut but also to trash Al Gore's. Pivoting on the ad's theme, Bush frames Gore's plan as an expression of distrust. "My opponent proposes targeted tax cuts only for those he calls 'the right people,' " says the governor. "We should help people live their lives but not run them." I could have sworn that the last time I heard these candidates talking about abortion and homosexuality, Bush was the one who wanted to run citizens' lives and reserve privileges for the right people. But he seems so trusting in this ad, surely I can trust him, too. 

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

"Trust" puts me in mind of one of my favorite movies, David Mamet's House of Games. I'm thinking of the scene in which the con artist played by Joe Mantegna explains how to run a scam on a stranger. You don't ask the mark to trust you. Instead, you give the gullible stranger your confidence. Once you've entrusted someone with your money, that person is ready to hand you his.

The Bush ad works on the same reciprocal principle. At this point in history, it's not effective for a politician to say, "Trust me." So Bush keeps repeating that he "trusts you"—to invest some of your Social Security taxes, to control local schools, and to retain a portion of the budget surplus. Because Bush trusts you on all these issues, you're supposed to trust him back. This powerful psychological message finds tonal support in an understated spot that lasts a full, trustworthy 60 seconds and draws heavily on the candidate himself talking straight into the camera.