Varnish Remover

Taxing Clinton’s Character

This spot, produced for the Republican National Committee by Lamar Alexander’s former media strategist, Mike Murphy, functions at two levels, the obvious and the almost obvious. It begins by taxing Clinton for “the largest tax increase in history.” Arguably inaccurate, but I won’t argue it here. This column is not your local newspaper’s “truth box.” Our purpose is not to expose inaccuracies, but to deconstruct the ad. What responsive chords is it trying to tweak? Why is it constructed the way it is?

The obvious appeal is to the anti-tax, anti-government feeling that is the perennial Republican redoubt. But the ad instantly focuses on the smallest part of the “largest tax increase” because, at this point, repealing the gas tax is Dole’s entire program.

The ad’s deeper message, though, is not about taxes; it’s about Clinton’s character. We see the president in grainy black and white, as if we were watching some damning tape his operatives had tried to hide or destroy, as he accepts blame for the tax increase and apologizes for it. This is the emerging Republican theme: Clinton the untrustworthy, the taxer, the liberal, who pretends to be something else.

The Clinton clip is real. He did apologize to a Houston audience of fat-cat contributors for having raised their taxes. But the original tape was in color, of course. It was altered by the ad maker to make it seem more tawdry. This also serves the spot’s final objective: to deal implicitly with the age issue. The grainy black-and-white Clinton yields to rich color film of an apparently vigorous Dole. The idea is to make the man seem at least a bit as Reaganesque as his new anti-tax message. 

The spot concludes by visually reprising the contrast. Over the grainy black and white, Clinton is challenged to support Dole’s gas-tax repeal. The clichéd tag line–“actions speak louder than words”–invites viewers to distrust anything the president says.

This ad is designed to taunt the Clinton camp into responding on taxes and character, which is where Dole strategists hope to wage the campaign. The goal is to subtract issues from the debate, not to add new ones–to deflect the voters from Dole’s vulnerabilities and focus them on Clinton’s. The Clinton strategists are attempting to do the same thing in reverse.