The Flytrap Ad War
The GOP's new commercials are brilliant. But will voters see the difference?
Reaction 4: "Get on with the people's business." Once Congress took up Starr's report, the electorate's hostility to the investigation shifted to the GOP. Each of the Republican ads acknowledges and answers the public's desire to see other issues discussed. "But aren't there other things to do?" asks the second mother in What Did You Tell Your Kids? The first mother then explains that "the Republicans are doing them. They cut taxes, they helped balance the budget, and they're putting people on welfare back to work."
The first ad, One Person, addresses this complaint in a different way, by situating Clinton's lies about Lewinsky in a larger critique of his honesty about public matters. It begins with video clips of Clinton contradicting himself on how long it will take to balance the budget. The ad dwells entirely on fiscal questions such as Social Security. Only at the end does it show him wagging his finger about Lewinsky. The message is that you should vote against Clinton not because he lied about sex but because he lies about everything.
Unfortunately for the GOP, the sophistication and delicacy of the ads is already being overwhelmed by the Democrats' simplification of them. In a Rose Garden appearance Wednesday, Clinton charged that Republicans are trying to "divert your attention" from "the American people and their families and their future." Vice President Al Gore, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Democratic Party officials equated the ads with previous efforts to "investigate" and "impeach" Clinton over his "sex life." As Gore put it, "The American people will look at these ads and say enough is enough. Get on with the business of the American people and talk about the real issues."
The danger for the GOP is that more voters will see shallow media coverage of the ads--"GOP revives Clinton sex scandal"--than will see the ads themselves. "Scandal ads hit campaign," shouts the front-page headline in USA Today. "President Says Policies Are the Real Issue," says the Washington Post's front page. Images from the ads dominate the front page of the New York Times, under the oversized caption "Angles of G.O.P. Attack." Civility may be the first casualty of any election, but subtlety is always the last.
Recent "Frame Games"
"Clinton's Peace Therapy": Is the Middle East deal a new chapter or a reminder of Monica? (posted Wednesday, Oct. 28, 1998)
"The Microsoft Trial": The lesson of Flytrap is to attack the inquisition. (posted Wednesday, Oct. 21, 1998)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.