Dean's overhyped "attack" ads.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Oct. 27 2003 2:02 PM

Mom, He Hit Me

Dean's overhyped "attack" ads.

"Did It" and "Iraq" were produced for the Dean campaign by Trippi McMahon & Squier. To watch "Did It" on the Dean campaign Web site, click here for the Windows Media Player version and  here for the QuickTime. To watch "Iraq," click here for the Windows Media Player version and here for the QuickTime. (Warning: The ads are very slow to load.) For transcripts of the ads, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg


Well, the Kerry-Gephardt machine is at it again. Two weeks ago, the New York Times outed the collaboration between John Kerry's campaign and Dick Gephardt's. Their common objective was taking down Howard Dean, who threatens to kill Gephardt in Iowa and Kerry in New Hampshire.

Last week, they struck again. Dean has two new ads on the air, one in Iowa and one in New Hampshire. The press is pouncing on him. "Dean's New Iowa Ads Attack Rivals," says the Washington Post. "Dean Becomes First in Campaign to Attack Fellow Democrats," says the Times. And look who shows up in the articles: spokesmen for Kerry and Gephardt. The Post quotes Kerry's campaign manager, Jim Jordan, saying, "No one here can remember any Democratic candidate going up with negative ads in October." The Times tells readers what transpired backstage: "an intense round of press releases, phone calls and e-mail messages from opponents' campaigns to reporters debating how negative the spots were. Mr. Kerry's staff quickly e-mailed the advertisements' scripts to reporters with the subject line 'Dean goes negative.' "

Do the ads live up to the hype? Hardly. In the New Hampshire ad, Dean says of Iraq, "The best my opponents can do is ask questions today that they should have asked before they supported the war." In the Iowa ad, he says of seniors' prescription drug costs, "Instead of fixing the problem, the best my opponents can do is talk about what was said eight years ago. … For years, the politicians in Washington have talked about health insurance and a prescription drug benefit, and all you got was talk. But in Vermont, we did it."

That's it. No names. All issues. By my count, Dean's complaint about Iraq applies to at least four candidates, and his complaint about prescription drugs applies to at least five. When you draw a distinction that separates you from all the other electable candidates, it's more accurate to say that the distinction is about you, not them. I prefer to reserve the word "attack" for something more pointed. The only pointed thing I see here is Dean's slap at opponents who "talk about what was said eight years ago." Reporters know Gephardt is the candidate who has slammed Dean hardest for endorsing Medicare cost controls in 1995. But that critique of Dean has since been echoed by others.

The Iraq ad doesn't even break new ground. Dean ran ads in August and September saying, "I opposed the war with Iraq when too many Democrats supported it." Even the pastoral setting looked similar.

If this is what's going to pass for an "attack" in this year's campaign ads, I'm going to rent a Tarantino movie.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

Leaving aside the question of why it should be considered wrong to criticize your opponents in a political campaign, you're right that these ads hardly qualify as attacks. Word by word, they read as fairly mild attempts to distinguish Howard Dean in a crowded Democratic field. In the New Hampshire spot, Dean sets himself apart as more forthrightly against the Iraq war. In the Iowa version, he says he's all action on health care, where his opponents are mostly talk.


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