Kerry finally grasps what Bush doesn't: reality.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Oct. 7 2004 7:11 PM

Accurate Theory

Kerry finally grasps what Bush doesn't: reality.

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The following five ads were produced for the Kerry campaign by Shrum, Devine, Donilon. To watch or read the script of "You Saw" on the Kerry campaign Web site, click here. For "Reasons," click here. For "Right Track," click here. For "Different Story," click here. For "Doesn't Get It," click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

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Jake, I want to pick up on two things you said in our exchange last week. You observed that Bush's ads about Kerry's flip-flops were sticking "because these ads pick up on something recognizable" in Kerry, i.e., they were "grounded in reality." You also argued that "by not settling on a single angle [of attack] 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."

You were right on both points. And I think Kerry is now recovering precisely because he's beginning to understand and act on them. His (and John Edwards') ads, speeches, and debate performances are coalescing around a single angle of attack that plays on something very recognizable in Bush: his unwillingness to face facts. To put it another way, the argument that Bush isn't grounded in reality is very much grounded in reality.

The latest of Kerry's ads along this line, "You Saw," began airing yesterday. It says that "you've seen" Kerry pledge clearly to protect America, that "you've seen" Cheney fudge the truth about Iraq and Halliburton, and that "you've seen the Bush-Cheney failures" on Iraq, the economy, the deficit, health care, and gas prices. The ad doesn't show Kerry or Cheney in the debates; it shows the faces of people watching these debates on television. The most obvious reason for this is that the campaigns agreed not to use images from the debates in their commercials. But I think there's another reason, underscored by the ad's title: By the time the ad was cut, Kerry knew that 62 million Americans had watched the debate. That made it possible for him to tell voters, essentially, "You saw me with your own eyes—so when Bush tells you I'm something else, you know his spin doesn't match reality." In courtroom parlance, Kerry is calling the jury—the voters—as eyewitnesses.

"Reasons" pits Bush's prewar claims about Iraq against the realities unearthed by the 9/11 commission and Bush's weapons inspectors. As the male narrator recites Bush's rationales for the war—weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida—a woman's voice decisively interjects, "Not true." The screen shows a headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Bush and Iraq; Invasion Rationales Wither as Facts Unfold." The narrator scoffs, "One reason after another—a new one offered every time the facts crumble."

Three more Kerry ads apply the reality test to Bush's postwar claims. "Right Track" shows Bush chirping dismissively that "the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America." (What was that again about not governing by polls?) The narrator responds, incredulously, "The right track? Americans are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded. Over a thousand American soldiers have died." The next ad, "Different Story," is more explicit: "George Bush keeps telling us things are getting better in Iraq. The facts tell a different story. Terrorists are pouring into the country. Attacks on U.S. forces are increasing every month. A thousand American soldiers have died."

My favorite of these spots is "Doesn't Get It." It begins with a photo of Bush declaring victory in Iraq 17 months ago. The now-infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner hangs behind him. "George Bush said Iraq was 'mission accomplished,' " the narrator begins. Bush never uttered those words, but the next image shows him appearing last week on Bill O'Reilly's television show. In that interview, O'Reilly asked: "The 'mission accomplished' statement in May 2003—if you had to do it all over again, would you not have done it?" Bush said he would. The ad concludes: "Sixteen months later, he still doesn't get it. Today, over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans. Still Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq.  How can you solve a problem when you can't see it?"

This really is Bush's essential flaw: not that he lies or flip-flops or serves the rich—I don't think any of those charges are true—but that he doesn't get it. He believes what he wants to believe and refuses to recognize emerging realities that challenge these beliefs. He couldn't see that radical changes in the economy and in the budget outlook between 1999 and 2001 made his backloaded tax cuts unwise. He couldn't see warnings in his intelligence briefings that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was iffy. He can't see the magnitude of the postwar mess in Iraq. He can't fix problems—hell, he's worsening problems—because he can't see them.

I've been pleading for this message all year, so I'm relieved to see it take center stage. For months, Bush has hammered Kerry's fundamental weakness, but Kerry has missed Bush's. Voters were hearing only one side of the story. Now they're hearing both.