Lies, Damned Lies, or Statistics

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 3 2000 11:30 PM

Lies, Damned Lies, or Statistics

"Nonsense" was produced for the Bush campaign by Maverick Media. "Ball" and "Doesn't Add" were produced for the Gore campaign by the Campaign Company. To watch "Nonsense" and "Doesn't Add" on the SpeakOut site, click here. For transcripts of the ads, click.

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From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

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Everyone's been waiting for The Big Nasty Ad at the end of this race. Evidently, "Nonsense" is it. Today's New York Times and Washington Post lead their main political stories with it; the Times, Post, and Los Angeles Times also analyze it. The commercial essentially says you can't believe anything bad Al Gore says about George W. Bush, because Gore is a liar. The reason for this assault, or at least the pretext, seems to be Gore's two-week bombardment of Bush's Social Security plan. But what's striking about Bush's response is how little attention it pays to the substance of Gore's charge.

Gore's most recent spots on Social Security are "Ball" and "Doesn't Add." "Ball" begins with a clip of Bush declaring that despite his proposal to divert some Social Security payroll tax revenue to personal savings accounts, "For those who have retired or are near retirement, there will be no changes at all to your Social Security." As Bush speaks, the words "George W. Bush Social Security Promise" appear beside him. The scene then shifts to a soft-spoken, white-haired gentleman speaking next to a table lamp. He wears a suit and appears to be sitting in a living room. The décor, dress, and demeanor make clear that the ad is aimed at seniors. The speaker explains, "My name is Bob Ball. I was Social Security commissioner under three presidents: two Democrats and a Republican. I've looked at Gov. Bush's plan. He takes $1 trillion out of Social Security for savings accounts. But Social Security is counting on that money to pay benefits. His plan simply doesn't add up and would undermine Social Security."

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"Doesn't Add," which we discussed yesterday, displays a row of Nobel Prize medals. The ad asserts, "Eight Nobel laureates—top economic experts in America—have reviewed George W. Bush's plans. Bush promises the same $1 trillion of Social Security to younger workers and the elderly at the same time. He uses the surplus on a tax cut promise, half going to those making over $300,000. Eight Nobel laureates conclude: George W. Bush's promises more than exhaust the surplus, increasing interest rates and the deficit. The Bush plan does not add up."

"Nonsense" tries to shoot down the Social Security allegations in these ads by dismissing Gore's credibility. "Remember when Al Gore said his mother-in-law's prescription cost more than his dog's? His own aides said the story was made up," says the announcer. "Now Al Gore is bending the truth again. The press calls Gore's Social Security attacks 'nonsense.' Gov. Bush sets aside $2.4 trillion to strengthen Social Security and pay all benefits." The ad closes with a clip of Gore saying in a debate with Bill Bradley, "There has never been a time in this campaign when I have said something that I know to be untrue. There has never been a time when I have said something untrue." The announcer concludes: "Really?"

Gore certainly does have a record of gratuitous exaggeration, and the clip of him in the debate with Bradley is a perfect distillation of his flamboyant sanctimony. Gore actually cocks his head and inflects his voice for pious emphasis as he denies having said anything untrue. "Nonsense" does a terrific job of reminding you of what you don't like about Gore. But it does a lousy job—and more tellingly, an indifferent job—of refuting Gore's charge. Gore's ads say Bush takes $1 trillion out of the Social Security trust fund. Bush says he leaves $2.4 trillion in the fund. Imagine, as an analogy, that you bought a $2 item from me, and you handed me a bill, and I gave you $8 in change. Imagine that you then said that you had given me a $20 bill and that I had short-changed you $10, and I replied simply that I had given you $8 back. My rebuttal doesn't contradict your charge. That's what Bush is doing here.

Evidently, Bush thinks he can get away with this because nothing Gore says can be believed. The thrust of "Nonsense" is to reframe the Social Security quarrel as a character issue—"Gore is bending the truth again"—converting it from a question of numbers to a question of credibility. Strategically, this move makes sense for Bush. If he wins the debate over whether he leaves enough money in the trust fund, the best he can do is avoid losing votes. But if he converts that dispute into a debate about Gore's credibility, Bush can gain votes—and the best Gore can do is avoid losing them.

Tactically, however, Bush may have misjudged the exchange. Gore's commercials appear to have been designed to withstand precisely this kind of counterattack. Notice that Gore doesn't appear in his ads. Instead, "Doesn't Add" repeatedly invokes the authority of "eight Nobel laureates," visually represented by a row of medals. For the Social Security charge in particular, that spot displays the imprimatur of "The Wall Street Journal." ("Nonsense" wryly tweaks this reference by citing the Journal's conservative editorial page as its basis for claiming, "The press calls Gore's Social Security attacks 'nonsense.' ")

Likewise, "Ball" relies almost entirely on the visual and professional credibility of an elderly gentleman who informs viewers that he managed Social Security under a Republican president. This spot is particularly notable for the absence of any audio—other than a vague, ominous background hum—that might distract the viewer from what transpires in the foreground: eight seconds of Bush delivering an assertion, followed by 22 seconds of Ball, who exudes honesty and authority, dismantling that assertion. The on-screen text displays nothing more than Ball's credentials and the material gist of the charge: "One Trillion out of Social Security." The ad is transparently designed to implant in the viewer's memory, without fanfare, a simple policy flaw—abstracted from the personalities of the candidates—whose magnitude and importance everyone can understand. So, when Bush replies in his own ad that Gore can't be believed, that reply doesn't address the credibility of the accusers—Bob Ball and the Nobel laureates—whose arguments appear on the screen.

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