Kerry's optimistic makeover.

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

A Ploy Called Hope

Kerry's optimistic makeover.

"Optimists" was produced for the Kerry campaign by Shrum, Devine, Donilon.To watch the ads on the Kerry campaign Web site, click here. To read the text, click here.

To: Jacob Weisberg
From: William Saletan

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Are optimists made or born?

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.

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.