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.

President Bush in "Forward"
President Bush in "Forward"

"Forward" and "100 Days" were produced for the Bush campaign by Maverick Media. "Misleading America" was produced for the Kerry campaign by Riverfront Media/GMMB & SDD. To watch "Forward" and "100 Days" on the Bush campaign Web site, click here. To read the texts, click here. To watch "Misleading America" on the Kerry campaign Web site, click here. To read the text, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

Bush's new ads, "Forward" and "100 Days," reinforce the pattern we saw in his first three ads. Namely, this is a president who thinks good intentions are more important than good results, except where the other guy's good intentions are concerned.

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"Forward" delivers the positive half of the message. It starts with Bush's reassuring twinkle as he tells us everything will be OK. "We can go forward with confidence, resolve, and hope," he says, as we see a girl bounding happily toward the horizon of a landscape that appears to be the Windows XP default desktop background. Lest anyone miss the key words, they follow the girl on the screen: "Confidence. Resolve. Hope." Why these words? Because they require no evidence. You can resolve to make things better, hope that they will get better, and have confidence that they will get better, even when things aren't getting better. In fact, confidence, resolve, and hope are precisely what a president has to ask you for when he has nothing tangible to show you.

As images of American soldiers and guardsmen flash across the screen, Bush asserts that the alternative to this rosy outlook is to "turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat." Again, the language betrays Bush's psychosis. An "illusion," as he defines it, is a vague misunderstanding of the world in general, as opposed to a verifiable misjudgment of something concrete, such as Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Also, according to Bush's operational definition, if Kerry says terrorists are plotting and outlaw regimes are a threat (as he has said) and Bush says Kerry thinks terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat, it's Kerry, not Bush, who suffers from an "illusion."

Next, we see two hardhats and a welder at work, as Bush tells us he will "continue to work to create jobs." A president who had created jobs could pledge simply to "continue to create jobs." Bush has to pledge to "continue to work to create" them, because he's nearly 3 million jobs in the red. That's the fourth thing we're supposed to do in the face of all this failure: hope, be confident, be resolute, and keep working at it.

Bush carries the good-intentions theme into his attack ad, "100 Days." The ad describes the Patriot Act as a law "used to arrest terrorists and protect America." The act's failure to produce verifiable results in this endeavor doesn't matter. The important thing is that this is what it's "used" for. But when it comes to Kerry, good intentions become irrelevant. "John Kerry's plan: To pay for new government spending, raise taxes by at least $900 billion," says the ad's female announcer. On the screen, the words "John Kerry's Plan" appear alongside the words, "Taxes Increase at Least $900 Billion."

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Now, we could have an honest debate about whether Kerry's health insurance proposal will cost $900 billion. But that isn't what the ad says. It says raising taxes by at least $900 billion is Kerry's "plan." And that's a flat-out lie. Kerry has lots of ways to avoid raising taxes. He could, for example, simply add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit, as Bush has done. That would be a lousy result, not a plan. But it's hard to make Kerry's hypothetical results look worse than Bush's real ones.

"100 Days" also claims that Kerry's "plan" is "to delay defending America until the United Nations approved." The text on the screen short-hands this as "Delay Defending America." As evidence for this claim, the press release accompanying the ad cites Kerry's statements about the Iraq war. But as everyone now knows—or at least, everyone but Bush now knows—the Iraq war, whatever else its merits, wasn't necessary to defend America, since Bush's claims about Iraqi WMD were false. Therefore, the ad's characterization of Kerry's position on defending America is false as well.

Kerry's response ad, "Misleading America," is less dishonest than Bush's ads but just as vapid in its avoidance of policy consequences. "John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion dollar tax increase," says the male announcer as the screen displays headlines backing him up. "He wants to cut taxes for the middle class." Again, notice the wishful language. Of course Kerry hasn't "called for" a trillion-dollar tax hike. Of course he "wants" to cut middle-class taxes. Tax hikes happen despite what politicians "want" and "call for." What does Kerry have to say about the cost of his health insurance proposal and how he's going to pay for it? Nothing. His message to Bush is: If you want to make good intentions and extravagant promises the centerpiece of this campaign, bring it on.

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