Kerry's optimistic makeover.

Kerry's optimistic makeover.

Kerry's optimistic makeover.

Political ads dissected and explained.
June 3 2004 2:19 PM

A Ploy Called Hope

Kerry's optimistic makeover.

(Continued from Page 1)

This spot, however, provides as much evidence to undercut the assertion as to support it. One problem, which you describe well, is simply the indirect way Kerry fixes his gaze. Another flaw is the premise of the ad, which is that one can make oneself into an optimist by filming a 30-second commercial called "Optimists." In previous elections, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush never had to declaim their optimism so baldly because it was reflected in their dispositions and language, and it remained apparent even when they angrily complained about mismanagement by their predecessors. Kerry, by contrast, is not what I'd call naturally sunny. A brooding mien and dour demeanor aren't necessarily faults in a leader (consider Lincoln, Churchill), but trying to seem like someone you're not can lead to trouble. Perhaps it is a form of optimism for a sourpuss to think he can recast himself as a winning character by spending $18 million to run an ad. But to me, that sounds more like political cynicism.

An even more doubtful bit of received wisdom absorbed by the Kerry campaign is that war and terrorism are Bush's issues, despite how badly things have gone for the president in Iraq. This ad reflects that assumption by attempting to frame Kerry's foreign policy concerns primarily the way Clinton did in his 1992 campaign against Bush's father, in the context of economics and domestic policy. The narrator says, "For John Kerry, a stronger America begins at home." The unstated implication is that Bush has weakened America with the costly foreign entanglements he has pursued instead of concentrating on problems at home. The visuals reflect Kerry's more inbound orientation: They're all heart-warming images of Americans doing American-looking thing in America with, as you note, Will, a ridiculous number of flags.

To my mind, the most dubious aspect of this pitch is the identity Kerry implies between foreign and domestic policy. In a classic Clinton move, Kerry suggests that this foreign policy is really about "jobs." But unlike Clinton, who embraced globalization and trade as a way to strengthen the domestic economy, Kerry implies that too much internationalism is hurting us. Kerry says he wants to create jobs "here, not overseas," implying that Bush has made a conscious choice to send them elsewhere. In reality, jobs are moving to China and India for reasons having little to do with the president's economic policy, reasons that would be exactly the same if Gore were president. There's a better case for criticizing Bush on rising health care costs, but that issue has even less to do with foreign policy, except on the highly attenuated grounds that Bush has neglected domestic issues for foreign ones. Of course, it's true at some level that a stronger America at home is stronger abroad. But because the converse is also true, this point reduces to the contention that "everything is everything."

The remainder of the ad similarly blends foreign and domestic, legitimate and illegitimate into a consultant-engineered mush.  Kerry wants "strong alliances to defeat terror" (as opposed to Bush, who has weakened our most important alliances) and wants America "respected in the world" (as opposed to Bush, who has diminished our standing). These are fair shots, though irritatingly indirect—why not come out and criticize Bush for making the United States isolated and unpopular? But Kerry also slips in a call for "independence from Middle East oil," which may be a clever way of suggesting excessive Bush friendliness with the Saudis but is a pipe dream in policy terms. Kerry's proposals wouldn't bring us anywhere near this goal and, even if they did, energy self-sufficiency on our part wouldn't necessarily bring about the collapse of nefarious Arab governments. And even if America somehow created all the energy it used, and that somehow undermined the Saudi royal family and other nasty Arab regimes decades hence, it's far from clear that doing so would make the world a safer place.

But maybe John Kerry really is an optimist after all.

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.