The Bush-Kerry air war begins.

Political ads dissected and explained.
March 16 2004 5:57 PM

30 Seconds Over Washington

The Bush-Kerry air war begins.

(Continued from Page 1)

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

You've pointed out the main deceptions in these ads. Bush's are way worse than Kerry's. As you say, it's not merely misleading, but an outright lie for the president to assert that Kerry wants to "raise taxes by at least $900 billion," for the simple reason that Kerry hasn't made that proposal. (If spending money implies finding revenue to cover it, then Bush wants to raise taxes by $900 billion, too.) It's an even balder lie to say Kerry didn't want to "defend America" because he supported asking for U.N. approval before the Iraq war. Leaving aside the larger question of whether invading Iraq had anything to do with defending America, Kerry actually voted to give Bush the power to go to war unilaterally, whether or not the United Nations agreed.

Kerry's ad, by contrast, is merely misleading. How can Kerry cut taxes for the middle class, pass a big new health care bill, and reduce the deficit? He can't, of course. He'll have to choose among these goals, just as Bill Clinton did after winning office on a similar triad in 1993. But that doesn't mean Kerry is fibbing by saying he wants to do all three things. He's just being, shall we say, a tad unrealistic.

As others have noted, these early ads represent an unprecedented level of aggression for this stage of a presidential election and augur a pretty vicious campaign. That kind of battle presents pitfalls for both sides. For Bush, the problem seems to me one of cognitive dissonance. The president wants to present himself as an affable candidate of optimism and hope, as highlighted in the ads we discussed last time, as well as in "Forward." At the same time, in "100 Days," he's pandering to fear of terrorism (cue anonymous swarthy visage giving us the evil eye) and sticking the shiv in his opponent for being squishy on national security and wanting more "big government," which Bush seemingly defines as more government spending paid for by revenues as opposed to borrowing.

There are two historical models pulling in opposite directions here. The positive model is Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" campaign. The negative model is Bush's dad's "Pledge of Allegiance" campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Can the younger Bush whistle both tunes at once? To some extent, the nasty message seems likely to undermine the uplifting one. Nice guys don't knife their opponents in dark alleys. And under the new campaign-finance law, Bush has to appear and say he approves of the negative attacks being broadcast in his name. The larger risk is that instead of a version of the GOP's winning 1984 or 1988 campaigns, Bush will end up re-enacting his father's clumsy 1992 re-election effort—a positive-negative hybrid that didn't achieve uplift and didn't bite.

For Kerry, there's a related risk—that in trying to prove he's no patsy, he will fail to present himself to voters who don't know him very well as a forward-looking, optimistic leader. For the Democrats, the two most relevant models seem to be the failed Dukakis campaign—which stands as a lesson about passivity in the face of right-wing attack—and Clinton's 1992 campaign, which was predominantly positive in spirit and emphasized "change." (Kerry's Clintonesque slogan: "John Kerry: A New Direction for America.") But even more than with Bush, whose sunny personality is well-established, Kerry's daggers threaten to obscure his grin. It will be difficult for Kerry to represent a positive new direction when he defines himself largely negatively, by swatting at his opponent.

Of course, elections are not zero-sum games. So if both sides stay negative for the next eight months, who suffers more? Generally speaking, negativity is thought to turn voters off and thereby reduce turnout. One might assume that a low-turnout election would help the GOP, since Republicans start from a slightly larger threshold of support. But I'm not sure that assumption will hold true this time. Bush's lies on television could fuel an already angry Democratic base. And if Bush is sufficiently hated, Kerry may not have to be loved.

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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