Gore's Final Offensive

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 1 2000 3:00 AM

Gore's Final Offensive

 

"Next," "Word," "Prosperity 2," and "Doesn't Add" were produced for the Gore campaign by the Campaign Company, which also produced "Myth" for the Democratic National Committee. For transcripts of the ads, click. To see "Next" on the Gore campaign Web site, click here. To see "Word," click here. To see "Prosperity 2," click here. To see "Myth" on the SpeakOut site, click here.

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From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

There were few things more certain in this campaign than the inevitability of Al Gore attacking his opponent, in the final weeks, for endangering Social Security. Gore is a strikingly unoriginal politician, and this maneuver is on the first page of his party's playbook. That the charge happens to be true this time around is a kind of unexpected bonus.

The two ads on this topic, the Gore campaign's "Next" and its DNC running mate, "Doesn't Add," strike me as fairly clean, hard shots. "Next" makes the point that Bush has committed the same trillion dollars twice by dragging the image of a 1 with twelve zeros across the screen, from a young redhead to the white-haired old lady. "So what happens when Bush promises the same money to young workers and to seniors?" the announcer asks. "Answer: One promise gets broken. Next question: Which one?" Where the ad may mislead a bit is in the suggestion that people who are now the age of the old lady in the picture would be at risk from Bush's proposal to fund individual accounts. In reality, it's people retiring a decade or so hence who should worry about an incipient shortfall.

"Doesn't Add" repeats the same charge about Social Security, adds assertions that Bush's tax cut would favor the rich and that his overall economic plan "does not add up," and draws in the authority of "eight Nobel laureates" to boot. There's a minor sleight of hand in this one. The ad leaves the impression that the eight Nobel winners, represented by what look like giant worn pennies, made the specific charge about Bush spending the trillion dollars of Social Security money twice. In fact, the Oct.10 statement by 300 economists (including eight Nobel winners) organized by the lefty Economic Policy Institute did not make this claim. But the signatories probably would have made it if the Gore campaign had come up with this line of attack three weeks ago. It's entirely in line with their views.

The second pair of Gore ads, "Word" and "Prosperity 2," broadens the economic attack, making a more general argument that Bush is a hazard to our current prosperity. "Word," the harsher ad, makes the charge directly. ("Bush has a tax plan that gives the fruits of that hard work to the richest 1 percent," the narrator says.) "Prosperity 2" criticizes Bush's recklessness implicitly. ("I think one of the most important things is not to take our strong economy for granted," Gore himself says.) In my opinion, these are both lousy spots—not because they're distorted, but because they don't do a good job making what ought to be a slam-dunk case: that Gore would be better news for the American economy.

The reason that "Word" fails to make this case well is that it's preoccupied with trying to pre-empt the other side's blather. "From high unemployment and record deficits, the hard work of America's middle class turned our economy around," the ad begins. Why does Gore fob off credit for the longest economic expansion in American history in this way instead of taking a bow himself? Of the many factors that have contributed to the current boom, surely one of the most central is that the current administration—urged on by the vice president—mustered the political will to begin bringing down the deficit. But Gore doesn't want to make this claim, for two reasons. The first is the superstition that prevents him from using the word "Clinton." The second is that Gore is afraid of the rejoinder from Republicans that "government doesn't cause prosperity, people do"—perhaps because it could revive the "exaggeration" issue.

But in trying to squelch this counterclaim, Gore simply adopts it himself, producing a nonsensical truism that isn't even true. To be sure, "hard work" by individuals is essential to economic health in the way that oxygen is essential to life. But hard work by itself doesn't bring about a healthy economy. Indeed, many people have to work even harder when the economy's bad, as it was under the president before Clinton. And what's the middle class got to do with it? Billionaire entrepreneurs and immigrants earning the minimum wage are just as essential to our country's economic success. "Word" isn't merely pandering to the middle class. It's moronic pandering.

"Prosperity 2" also accepts Bush's way of framing the economic debate in a way that undermines what should be a powerful case. Rather than tout the strength of the economy that he deserves some credit for, Gore in this spot suggests here that prosperity alone is not enough—it must have a higher purpose, to quote one of the other major party nominees. Gore describes this purpose as making sure that children breathe clean air, giving them "the best education anywhere in the world" and extending access to affordable health care. But there's a problem here. Clean air, first-rate education, and universal access to health care are exactly the things that don't flow automatically from a healthy economy like the one we have now. By bringing these issues up in this context, Gore is essentially devaluing his own economic accomplishment. Moreover, Gore's words are accompanied by gauzy images and soothing flute music that give the ad a tranquilizing effect—exactly the opposite of what Gore needs to produce in the final stage of the campaign.

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Finally, we come to the DNC's new education spot, "Myth." If Gore's Social Security ads are both effective and fair, while his economy ads are fair but ineffectual, this one strikes me as both ineffective and unfair. It's ineffective because the charge that Bush has been bad for education in Texas has no resonance. Education is practically the only issue the guy understands or cares about. And it's unfair because it implies that the new Rand study shows that education in Texas is getting worse. In fact, as this "Ballot Box" column explains, the new Rand study makes only a much narrower case that the state's accountability system is flawed. While education in Texas may not be a "miracle," the best evidence suggests that it has improved under Bush in both relative and absolute terms. What's more, the state has made gains by pursuing many of the policies that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman advocate. Were education in Texas getting worse, voting against Bush wouldn't stop the problem from spreading.

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