On Kerry's flip-flops, Bush is framing the guilty.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Sept. 30 2004 5:31 PM

Windbag Surfing

On Kerry's flip-flops, Bush is framing the guilty.

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"Searching" and "Windsurfing" were produced for the Bush campaign by Maverick Media. To watch the ads on the Bush campaign Web site, click here. To read the script of "Searching," click here. To read the script of "Windsurfing," click here.

From: William Saletan
To:
Jacob Weisberg

Jake, the ads are coming so fast and furious, I can barely keep up with them. I bet viewers are having the same problem. Basically, there are too many commercials making too few points. Let's take Topics A and B—Iraq and terrorism—and examine what the candidates are saying about them. First we'll look at Bush's ads. Next time we'll look at Kerry's.

Bush's ads, "Searching" and "Windsurfing," paint Kerry as a flip-flopper. (The major conservative 527 group, Progress for America Voter Fund, is running a similar ad, but we can skip that one, since it's just a bad version of "Windsurfing.") For my money, "Windsurfing" is the best ad of the year. It shows Kerry windsurfing to the camera's right, then left, then right, etc. With each tack, the announcer mocks Kerry for taking one position, then another.

But Kerry isn't really tacking. His infamous windsurfing vacation has been spliced to make it look as though he jerks back and forth. The same trick could be done with videotape of you walking to lunch and back. They'd run a snippet of you walking to lunch, then a snippet of you walking back, then the same snippet of you walking to lunch, etc. It would create the false appearance that you can't figure out which way to walk.

The narration accompanying the spliced footage of Kerry windsurfing is equally, fittingly false. "Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it, and now opposes it again," says the announcer. Untrue. Kerry never "voted for the Iraq war." He voted for a resolution that Bush advertised as leverage to avoid war. And the kind of war Kerry supported (multilateral, last resort, preceded by sound planning for the postwar) isn't the kind of war Kerry opposed. The difference between the war Kerry supported and the one he opposed is the difference between the war Bush promised and the one he delivered.

We've already talked about the $87 billion. Kerry voted for the appropriation as long as it was paid for by rolling back the high end of Bush's tax cuts, instead of by running up the deficit. There was no contradiction between Kerry's votes.

"Searching" is a more thorough collection of Kerry's alleged flips and flops on Iraq. Still, not thorough enough. Again, crucial context is spliced out. One of Kerry's supposedly pro-war comments—"The winning of the war was brilliant"—is about the military's fast takedown of the regime. The ad misrepresents this as broad support for Bush's prewar and postwar planning. A putative antiwar statement by Kerry—"I don't believe the president took us to war as he should have"—is a classic Kerry tightrope walk: He supported going to war, but not the way Bush did it. "I have always said we may yet even find weapons of mass destruction" is an old quote, predating reports that the search has been completed and no such weapons have been found.

I think two of the Kerry quotes in "Searching" are fair game. "It's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time" can't be squared with Kerry's more supportive comments about the war, because it isn't Kerry's position. His position, to be precise, is that Bush's Iraq war was the right war, in the wrong way, in the right place, at the wrong time. Of course, if Kerry had put it that precisely, I'd be mocking him for splitting hairs.

The other quote that's fair game—"It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the president made the decision, I supported him"—plainly can't be squared with Kerry's "wrong war" comment. By saying he supported Bush "when the president made the decision" to disarm Saddam, Kerry plainly endorsed the war as Bush conducted it. That was May 3, 2003, in the glory days after the fall of Baghdad. Kerry has never again uttered such an unconditional endorsement of the war. But he did say it, and I'm sure he did so for the same reason I said such things back then: That's the way the wind was blowing.

From:
Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

A lot of Democrats I know are shaking their heads and asking why their side seems perennially less effective than Republicans when it comes to presidential campaigns. The self-congratulatory answer one often hears is that conservatives are more ruthless and more willing to lie. I think there's some truth to that, but these commercials speak to what is surely a bigger distinction: The GOP simply plays the political game better than the Democrats do. Republican media consultants make more biting and memorable ads. Their operatives run slicker and smoother conventions. Their strategists develop stronger, clearer messages. And their candidates stick to those messages in a more disciplined way.

A big element of the GOP's superior skill is the technique it has refined for depicting Democratic candidates in terms of a simple, troubling vice—and then reinforcing that portrayal relentlessly and pervasively. In 2000, the Bush team did Al Gore in with the charge that Gore was prone to boastful exaggeration. At first, this seemed a pretty weird and marginal critique. Who cares if a politician exaggerates his accomplishments—don't they all do that? What's more, many of the specific attacks were baseless. Gore never really took credit for inventing the Internet. He didn't really claim to have been raised on a union lullaby that hadn't yet been written when he was a baby. A number of Gore's other infamous howlers were equally dubious.

But there was enough truth to the underlying portrayal for it to stick. While politicians habitually exaggerate their claims and accomplishments, Gore did so with more chest-puffing than most. And once the Bush campaign laid the groundwork for the case that he couldn't be trusted, Gore's minor errors and even comments intended as jokes became additional evidence for the prosecution. Gore's campaign, which was far less effective than Bush's in the classic, pre-Clinton Democratic way, was never able to dispel such claims or to find a similar "character" hook to hang his opponent on.

What Karl Rove & Co. are doing to Kerry is remarkably similar to what they did to Gore. Yes, Will, these two ads are unfair in all the ways you point out. Kerry wasn't fudging when he said he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it. He was articulating, clumsily, the perfectly sensible position that the Iraq War should be paid for with tax dollars, not financed with more government borrowing. But this line has now become Kerry's version of "I invented the Internet."

The myth that Kerry was equivocating when he said that will probably never be cleared up, because it supports a deepening impression that people have of him in general. The much-repeated $87 billion quote is a fiction that gets at the larger truth that Kerry tends to talk out of both sides of his mouth. If Bush charged Kerry with being lazy, or a liar, or not understanding foreign policy, the charges wouldn't stick, because those complaints aren't grounded in reality. But because these ads pick up on something recognizable about the Democratic nominee, the distortions don't really impair their effectiveness. Bush isn't accusing an adulterer of bank robbery. He's accusing a bank robber of some heists he didn't commit, along with a few he did.

The other reason these ads work is that they're part of a consistent and well-executed strategy. Bush regularly ridicules Kerry as a trimmer on the stump. Bush's surrogates make the same point as often as they appear on television. Independent expenditure groups, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have played off the same idea. Remember all the delegates who brought plastic sandals to the Republican Convention and chanted "flip-flop, flip-flop"? That wasn't spontaneous humor. It was another expression of a thought-out plan to portray the Democratic nominee in a certain way. These ads reinforce that same message in a variety of tones. "Windsurfing" mocks Kerry ironically, with shots of him in his goofy vacation get-up and the "Blue Danube" waltz playing in the background. "Searching" hits him more caustically, ending with the words, "How can John Kerry protect us ... when he doesn't even know where he stands." 

Does this kind of caricature work? The front page of today's Wall Street Journal has a story about "persuadable" voters that describes one John Hay, a retired engineer in Missouri. Mr. Hay doesn't like anything about Bush, but can't bring himself to vote for Kerry because "he's always doing an about face" on issues. I wonder where John Q. Public could have gotten an idea like that.

Kerry, like Gore, has attacked Bush in a number of plausible ways, but not in any consistent or resonant way over a meaningful period of time. Is Bush a right-wing ideologue or a clueless puppet? Is he a liar or a fool? There are many ways to skin a cat. But by not settling on a single angle the way his opponent has, Kerry has not only failed to foster a negative image of Bush. He's reinforced his own image as a politician who can't decide which way to go.

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.