McGavick vs. Cantwell and the inanity of political ads.

Policy made plain.
Oct. 6 2006 7:34 AM

It Doesn't Ad Up

McGavick vs. Cantwell and the inanity of political spots.

SEATTLE—Here in Washington state, we don't care for partisanship and negativity, which leaves our candidates with not much to talk about. "Look," says Republican Senate candidate Mike McGavick, "if the Republican Party came to me and said, 'Mike we want you to vote against the families of your state,' I'd tell them to go jump. I'll choose the people of our state every time." 

Wow. This must be one of those "hard choices" McGavick, a former insurance executive, says he is prepared to make if he is sent to the Senate. He does not supply any other examples. My idea of a hard choice would be having to choose between the short-term interests of the people—yes, even the families—of your state and the long-term interests of the nation. Through the fog of generalities, McGavick appears to see things differently. A press release, titled "Mike Takes a Tough Line on Federal Spending Reforms," is mostly about federal grants to the University of Washington. But he supports this spending, of course, and deplores that it has been cut, which he attributes to "budgetary mismanagement." He made this point in a day spent campaigning with Bush administration Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was here in his capacity as a Hispanic and not as anyone who might bear responsibility for the federal budget.

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If you knew nothing about Mike McGavick except what is in his TV commercials and on his Web site, you would conclude that either he is a moron, or he thinks you are a moron. Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell's ads aren't so wonderful, either. They're mainly about all the federal money and other favors she's brought to the state. But if any of this is part of the "pork barrel … wasteful, out of control spending" that upsets McGavick, he doesn't say so.

And, of course, there is a subtext to each of the inanities in McGavick's commercials. They all have been focus-grouped and market-tested. For example, in one press release expressing his "disappointment" (I bet) that Cantwell had voted against some tax cut, McGavick says, "This isn't about Senator Cantwell." It's about "partisan nonsense." Cantwell is (the headline says), "Following Party Over State's Interests."

Now ask yourself: Why would she do that? Why would she put her party's interests over those of her Washington state constituents? Who cares enough about either party to actually put their own political futures at peril? Answer: no one. Taken literally, the charge is absurd. But it's not meant to be taken literally. It is just part of the miasma of themes and images that political professionals create around candidates. Cantwell is popular, partisanship is not. So blame partisanship and not Cantwell. Be for "families." Be for "change." Be against "Washington, D.C." and "lobbyists."

The media do a better and better job each election cycle at pointing out and analyzing these campaign constructs. But by doing so, in a way, they legitimize it all. By raising up the subtext, they diminish the importance of the text. Don't be naive: You're not supposed to take this stuff literally. Politicians are trying to push your buttons. They aren't trying to communicate with you.

In a radio spot released Oct. 3, called "Not Paying Attention," McGavick says, "Folks in Washington, D.C., you know they must think we are not paying attention" to "some of the things they are getting away with." In a rare particular, he blames "automatic pay raises" for creating bad incentives for members of Congress. "We have got to change," he says, "but the only way to do that is to change who represents us."

Maria Cantwell hit it big in the dot-com boom and is a very rich woman. She has spent tens of millions of dollars on her election and re-election campaigns. Whatever her flaws, she cannot possibly care about a pay raise. Taken literally, the notion that any national politician assumes that the voters and media and opposition party are "not paying attention" is equally ridiculous. So, what is her motivation? What is McGavick's, for that matter? (He's rich, too, having struck gold in just a few years as an insurance executive.) In an age when senators have almost no power to affect the actual course of events, and when most of them don't seem to have any particular notion of what they would do with that power if they had it—McGavick certainly doesn't—why anyone bothers to be a senator is a fascinating question. Is Maria Cantwell devoting her life to betraying the families of Washington just for the fun of it?

McGavick has no explanation, except to say that "this stuff is nuts," that it is "partisan nonsense," and so on. But Maria Cantwell is not nuts. "Nuts" is not a plausible explanation. And, without either any specifics or a plausible explanation, McGavick's complaints are exceptionally empty. Knowing virtually nothing about McGavick, I saw one of his 30-second spots last week and took an instant, personal, and possibly unfair dislike to him. And I wonder why everyone doesn't have the same reaction to these patronizing, insulting commercials. Maybe some do—McGavick is going to lose, apparently—but more must be turned on than are turned off, because McGavick is not nuts, either.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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