From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
Will, I agree with you about everything except the ads. You're reading your own lucidity into them. Unfortunately, they don't reflect anything like the kind of message clarity you've been hoping for.
We're on the same page about what Kerry's anti-Bush message should be. The theme that Bush is out of touch with reality is the Democrats' strongest line of attack for several reasons. For one thing, it happens to be true. You saw in the first debate how cocooned Bush was, protected by his chamberlains from negative facts and criticism. For another, this charge cleverly skirts such delicate issues as whether Bush is a liar or a nincompoop. If the president is simply out of touch with reality, voters shouldn't want him for a second term regardless of whether they identify with him personally or admire his moral bearing. You get the same result without the off-putting harshness. This critique also wraps into a neat political package Bush's failures on a lot of seemingly unconnected issues, like Iraq and the budget deficit—just as Bush's charge about Kerry's "Windsurfing" does. That's why I thought Kerry's Sept. 16 blast that Bush was "living in a fantasy world of spin" was his single best shot to date.
But Kerry has not, to my knowledge, repeated that line in the three weeks since. And while the theme of Bush's being detached from reality is present in these ads, it's overpowered by the presence of too many other ideas and arguments. All five of these commercials are stuffed like Christmas stockings. I've watched them repeatedly now, but if you hadn't told me in advance what you thought their common theme was, I don't think I would have been able to guess it. I might have said something like, "Bush's screw-ups in Iraq"—which is not just a different point, but a different kind of point.
The clearest expression of the earth-to-president complaint comes in the ad you say is your favorite, "Doesn't Get It." This is that spot that begins with the "Mission Accomplished" banner and responds with a wicked slam at Bush's leadership in general: "How can you solve a problem when you can't see it?" That, too, would be a great slogan for Kerry and his surrogates to repeat ad nauseam (they won't). But the whole second part of this ad focuses on something else: the notion that Bush has no plan for fixing Iraq, while Kerry does. To me, Kerry's "plan"—elections, Iraqification of the war, getting allies to help more—doesn't sound so different from Bush's current policy. It's a convention for ads like this to move from negative to positive. But here Kerry's much mealier positive argument blunts the stronger, negative swipe in the first part of the ad.
And it's downhill from there. Take the most recent of these spots, "You Saw," which was released on Oct. 6. The novelty of this ad is its rhetorical cast. Instead of trying to persuade, the ad asserts that you, the viewer, are already persuaded. "You've seen Dick Cheney not tell the truth on Iraq and on his financial connections to Halliburton," the narrator declares, describing the vice presidential debate. Some viewers may want to respond, "No, I didn't see that—I was watching the baseball game." Insisting that others must agree with you may be a novel technique, but it seems overbearing to me. I was on a criminal jury recently and felt similarly resentful when the lawyers told me in their summations what I'd seen and heard from the witnesses. Even where I agreed with them, it felt hectoring.
But the real problem with this spot, as with the others, is that it's an overfilled suitcase. "But when it comes to Iraq, the economy, the deficit, health care costs, gas prices, and more, you've seen the Bush-Cheney failures for yourself." You can hear the haste in the narrator's voice as he attempts a mad dash through all of these issues in just a few seconds of airtime. Will, this ad is a hedgehog run amok. It tells you many small things about what Bush has done wrong. But it neglects to hammer home the one big thing: Bush's early retirement to la-la land.
"Reasons" is yet another case in point. Displaying multiplying images of the president, it notes that Bush has repeatedly changed his rationale for going to war. It also notes that Bush's chief arguments—weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam and al-Qaida—were "not true." It also notes that things in Iraq are going very badly with "Americans being held hostage, kidnapped, even beheaded." It also notes that Bush doesn't have a plan to fix Iraq. Each of these criticisms of Bush's Iraq policy—contradiction, deceit, failure, the lack of a future policy—could have some bite if isolated, played up, and hammered home. But the litany is more than the poor TV-watching brain can absorb in 30 seconds. Meanwhile, the stronger, unifying point emphasized in "Doesn't Get It" has gone missing.
Kerry is now making the point you've been agitating for, Will. But he still isn't saying it strongly or clearly enough—in these ads or elsewhere.