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.

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.