To: Jacob Weisberg
From: William Saletan
Every president starts with a big advantage over his challenger. Since Americans tend to identify the president with the nation, and the challenger has to make a case that the nation is doing poorly, the challenger looks as though he's wishing ill on the nation. George W. Bush has aggressively exploited this weakness, painting John Kerry as a carping downer on Iraq and the economy. On the other hand, Bush has taken a risk most incumbents avoid: He has run tens of millions of dollars of very negative ads early in the race. These ads make Kerry look like a tax-and-spend wimp. But they also make Bush look mean. And that gives Kerry an opening: If he can stay upbeat, he can turn the incumbent-challenger dynamic upside down. He can make himself the feel-good candidate, while the president dissolves in the bile of the Bush campaign's attack ads.
That's the strategic context in which Kerry's new commercial, "Optimists," arrives this week in 19 states. "We're a country of the future," Kerry begins. "We're a country of optimists. We're the can-do people." As he speaks, a little girl with huge blue eyes gazes up hopefully at the camera. Later, a second little girl listens to Kerry in front of a computer, and a third runs with a soccer ball she has just taken out of the trunk of an adjacent SUV. (Or is it a station wagon? Either way, the cliché comes across.) We see plenty of Kerry smiling, backed by sunny skies and lush landscapes.
The ad also reinforces the macho theme Kerry broached in his last two high-volume commercials, "Heart" and "Lifetime." Again, the word "strength" is central. "For John Kerry, a stronger America begins at home," says the announcer. "A strong military and strong alliances—to defeat terror. America. Stronger at home. Respected in the world." For those of you with impaired hearing, the words "Stronger at home. Respected in the world" appear twice on the screen, lasting several seconds each time.
The military images start early and never stop. In the second shot, an aging veteran salutes in front of a "VFW" sign so huge that even a visually retarded viewer like me can't miss it. Two seconds later, Kerry shakes another vet's hand. (For us military ignoramuses, the Kerry campaign has chosen vets who are wearing those little pointed hats that scream "veteran.") Then Kerry talks in front of a huge American flag and a guy in uniform who looks like a policeman. Then a guy in a short-sleeve shirt and goggles puts something into a machine. Could the image be more blue-collar? Behind him is another American flag. Later, Kerry speaks in front of a battleship decked out with American flags. Then he talks to a guy in what looks like a drill sergeant's hat. Then another guy in a drill sergeant's hat, this time in front of a flag. The ad ends with Kerry smiling in front of a flag so big it fills the screen. Total flag count: 13.
Two twists on this patriotism theme are particularly creative. As the narrator talks about "independence from Middle East oil," the screen pairs two images: an oil derrick and Kerry talking to folks on a porch, backed by yet another American flag. Later, as the narrator talks about "strong alliances," the screen shows Kerry speaking in front of an American flag and a tall, thin banner with red, white, and blue stripes. If you look up the second banner on the Web, it appears to be the flag of either the Netherlands or Yugoslavia hung sideways. (Given that we recently bombed the hell out of Yugoslavia, I'm betting on the Netherlands.) But ordinary voters don't have the time for this kind of research. If anything, they'll assume Kerry is kissing up to France. That goof aside, Jake, I think the Kerry camp is wise to use these images to broaden the debate about strength and patriotism, playing to Democratic strengths on energy policy and multilateralism.
Question for Kerry's ad team: In this spot, as in "Heart" and "Lifetime," Kerry looks away from the camera, appearing to talk to somebody over the viewer's left shoulder. Do your focus groups really like this? (I find that hard to believe.) Or is this the only footage you have of Kerry speaking from the heart? (I find that harder to believe.) Or is Kerry simply incapable of speaking from the heart while looking into the camera? This wouldn't be a character flaw. From the candidate's point of view, after all, the task is to speak to a camera, which is unnatural. I'm just curious as to why you use this footage, and how long you can keep doing it before viewers start wondering why your guy, from their point of view, doesn't look them in the eye.
To: William Saletan
From: Jacob Weisberg
One of the great clichés of presidential politics is that Americans always prefer the more optimistic candidate. This thesis is used to explain how FDR got elected four times, why Kennedy beat Nixon, why Reagan beat Carter and Mondale, why Clinton beat George H. W. Bush, and why George W. Bush (sort of) beat Gore. Thus it is not surprising that Kerry, who seems to take all of the conventional wisdom repeated by political consultants at face value, has now made an ad declaring himself an optimist.