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.

Still, I can see how someone might take these spots as unusually negative, especially for a stage of the campaign that's still more about definition than contrast. The reason is not what Dean says; it's how he says it. On video, he always seems to be damming up a torrent of anger. When Joe Lieberman takes the offensive, he sighs and smiles, sticking the shiv in as he pronounces himself sadly disappointed in his opponents. In these ads, Dean never smiles (though he intermittently seems to be trying). Rather, he struggles to calibrate his boundless exasperation.

Will a sour demeanor doom Dean's candidacy? The accepted view, at least since Ronald Reagan's 1984 * "Morning in America" commercials, is that Americans respond to dewy optimism, not negativity. While there's an insight here, the futility of pessimism may be one of those lessons that politicians have over-learned. The essence of Dean's appeal to frustrated Democrats is his harshness in criticizing Bush, while the pillars of the party have provided only token opposition. Even people who don't agree with Dean on various issues respond to how pissed off he is. His severity might ultimately limit his appeal. But without it, I'm not sure he'd appeal in the first place.

And speaking of winning characters who flash with anger, am I crazy to think Dean is consciously playing up the Josiah Bartlet shtick? Where many ads gloss over geographic distinctiveness, Joe Trippi and team everywhere emphasize Dean's flinty New England flavors. The backdrop is an early autumn day in Vermont. Dean stands in front of yellowing sugar maples, dressed in a muted-tone sweater. Cyclists and hikers crisscross the green, rolling hillside. "I want to reclaim our rights and our liberties that were taken away in the name of patriotism," he says, striking an Ethan Allen note.

Fresh-pressed cider, anyone?

Correction, Oct. 31, 2003: The article originally and incorrectly referred to "Ronald Reagan's 1980 'Morning in America' commercials." Those commercials aired in 1984, not 1980. Return to corrected sentence.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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

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