Democrats give Bush a taste of his own medicine.

Political ads dissected and explained.
April 13 2004 5:37 PM

Good for the Slander

Democrats give Bush a taste of his own medicine.

A mixed message
A mixed message

"Tax Cuts," "Factory," and "$87 Billion" were produced by the Media Fund. To watch "Tax Cuts" on the Media Fund Web site, click the designated link for your media player under "Middle Class Tax Cuts" on the Media Fund home page. To watch "Factory," click the designated link for your media player under "It's About Jobs" on the same page. To watch "$87 Billion," click the designated link for your media player under "It's About Priorities." To read the text of each ad, click "Get the facts" under the media player links.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

Last month, when we excoriated President Bush's attack ads, I felt a bit guilty and mystified. Guilty because we were far harsher on Bush's ads than on John Kerry's, and mystified because our differential treatment was justified by Kerry's relative honesty. Why wasn't Kerry twisting Bush's record the way Bush was twisting Kerry's? Were Democrats taking the high road? Where was the take-no-prisoners counterattack the Kerry folks had promised?

Now we have our answer. The dirty work won't be done by Kerry. It'll be done by Democratic operatives who are countering Bush's financial advantage over Kerry—and circumventing the new campaign-finance restrictions—by spending millions of dollars in uncapped contributions, through so-called "527" committees, on ads against the president. Their ads are just as political as the ones Kerry is running, and more aggressively deceptive.

The most effective of the three big anti-Bush groups is the Media Fund, run by former Clinton strategist Harold Ickes. One of its ads, "Tax Cuts," takes the tactic for which we rebuked Bush last month and throws it back in the president's face. Bush's tactic was to expose a gap between Kerry's proposed spending and available revenues, then infer that Kerry would raise taxes to cover the difference. I thought the argument was within bounds until Bush's ad dishonestly called the inferred tax hike a "plan." I remember suggesting, when we recorded our analysis for NPR's Day to Day, that the equivalent lie on the other side would be to accuse Bush of cutting politically sacred programs just because his own tax and spending policies didn't add up.

Sure enough, that hypothesized lie is now on the air. Bush "raided Social Security to pay for a tax cut for millionaires," says the announcer in "Tax Cuts." Really? What's the evidence? The Media Fund's explanatory fact sheet notes that in each of the last three years, the Social Security payroll tax brought more money in to the Treasury than the Treasury spent on Social Security benefits. The fact sheet concludes that in each year, "The remaining [money in] the Social Security Trust Fund was spent."

Are Democrats prepared to have this definition of "raiding" Social Security applied to them? Because in that case, they've been "raiding" the fund for decades. But of course, they don't seriously accept this definition. They're just playing Bush's game in reverse: Expose a gap between Bush's tax cuts and available revenues, then imply that Bush would gut Social Security to cover the difference. It may be true that Bush's policies would lead to cuts in Social Security benefits, just as it may be true that Kerry's policies would lead to tax hikes on the middle class. But to call either eventuality a "plan" or a "raid" is dishonest.

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The other indictment of Bush in this ad—"He supported tax breaks for exporting jobs"—is the main theme of two other Media Fund productions, "Factory" and "$87 Billion." "Factory" opens with a close-up of a smokestack. As the camera retreats, the rest of the factory becomes visible, revealing Chinese characters on some of the buildings. "During the past three years, it's true George W. Bush has created more jobs," says the announcer. "Unfortunately, they were created in places like China." Call me unpatriotic, but I've never understood why creating jobs for Asians is morally (as opposed to politically) worse than creating jobs for Americans. Billions of people in other countries live in squalor. They're willing to work for less than Americans are because, by and large, they need money more desperately than we do. All that matters politically, however, is that China has no votes in our Electoral College. The trade debate works for Democrats the same way the national security debate works for Republicans: It's a cost-free venue for bashing foreigners, looking tough, and challenging the other party's patriotism.

"$87 Billion" softens this message a bit. It depicts a teacher, a boy at a desk without a classroom, and a sick girl in need of medical attention. We'd be able to educate and treat these kids, the ad argues, if Bush hadn't spent the money on something else. What is that something else? Tax cuts for the rich? Weapons for the Pentagon? Subsidies for big business? Nope. The chief culprit, according to the text on the screen, is that "America is alone, spending billions for Iraq." The announcer acidly concludes, "After three years, when is George Bush going to start taking care of America?"

Note that the ad doesn't say we're spending too much "against" Iraq. It says we're spending too much "for" Iraq. Altruism, not militarism, is the charge. This is the same hot button Kerry routinely presses when he complains that we're "opening firehouses in Baghdad" and closing them in the United States. Now that Bush has failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and has fallen back on a humanitarian rationale for the war, he's even more vulnerable to this attack. Iraqis are the new welfare queens, and Democrats are the new foreign-aid bigots. It's the ugliest message I've seen from Kerry's party in this election. Sadly, it's also the smartest.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

Why is the claim that Bush has "raided" Social Security to pay for tax cuts dishonest? The Social Security system started running surpluses—taking in more in payroll taxes than it paid out in benefits—in the late 1980s. It was supposed to be filling up a trust fund to pay for the eventual retirement of the baby boom generation. When the federal government runs a surplus—as it did during Bill Clinton's second term—it's fair to say that the Social Security trust fund is being preserved or protected, even though the extra money it takes in technically goes toward paying down the national debt. Reducing long-term debt strengthens the government's fiscal position for the day when it will have to pay out more in retirement benefits than it collects from payroll taxes. Conversely, when the federal government runs large deficits, it's fair to say that the trust fund is being raided, because Social Security revenues that would otherwise reduce long-term debt are spent instead on the current operations of government. If Bush hadn't secured huge tax cuts (and spending increases), Social Security's future promises would stand a better chance of being honored. By intentionally bringing back huge deficits, Bush has in fact "raided" the trust fund.

But I'll grant your larger point—these ads are largely disingenuous and pretty ugly in terms of the sentiments they convey. Bush did not "support a tax break for exporting jobs." His administration promoted a tax-law change that was intended to level the field for American-based companies competing with foreign firms abroad. More generally, for Kerry and his supporters to talk about the loss of jobs due to outsourcing without reference to the American jobs created both by insourcing and by increased exports is both bad economics and lousy logic. You can't look at just one side of the trade equation; the gains and losses are both products of globalization.

There is also, as you suggest, Will, a streak of xenophobia and isolationism running through all of these spots (though I'll admit that the jobs ad, in which the Chinese lettering on the factory is revealed as the announcer explains that Bush has created lot of new jobs—in China—is also pretty clever). The problem is not just the implicit hostility to workers in developing nations (in "Factory"). It's the assumption (in "$87 Billion") that money spent rebuilding Iraq is wasted because it's not going toward "taking care of America." I remember when Democrats liked foreign aid and argued that poverty in other countries should be a concern of ours. Does Harold Ickes, who raised the cash to pay for these commercials, really think that we shouldn't pay to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan?

Whether or not Kerry's ads—including these non-Kerry Kerry ads—are as bad as Bush's, they are demagogic and convey an economic nationalism that I find repellant. Yet at the same time, I'm relieved that liberals are finally playing hardball and not being patsies for Bush's attacks. I like the joke that Bush is creating jobs in China, even if I think it distorts reality. If I'm not mistaken, you share this sentiment at least a little. As much as you want to be evenhanded and declare a pox on both their houses, you seem slightly pleased that Kerry is running smart, even if he's running ugly.

This time four years ago, I tried to deal with this problem in a piece called "Dilemma of the Ruthless Democrat." Personally, I'm glad that Democrats aren't going to serve themselves up as victims for ruthless Republicans this time around. I plan to continue calling Kerry on his b.s., just as I'll continue to call Bush on his. I know you will, too. But I also hope that Kerry matches Bush slander for slander.                                      

And in fact, I have no doubt that he will.

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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