Varnish Remover

A Strategy of Tactics

This spot, produced by the dean of Democratic media consultants, Bob Squier, begins by indicting the Republicans for “another negative” attack. Initially, it doesn’t even bother to identify the substance of the attack. Survey research shows that one of the most effective negative charges is that the other side is being negative. This ad seeks to create a context of doubt for any and all Republican attacks on Bill Clinton. In fact, both sides run negative ads.

Eventually the ad implies that its subject (sort of) is immigration. The purpose is to pre-empt another “natural” Republican issue. Immigration continues to be social and political dynamite, and this spot tries to take the match out of Republican hands. The Buchananesque toughness of the pictures validates the toughness of the language, leaving the impression that Clinton is as anti-immigrant as any Republican.

The spot now shifts to its own negative fusillade against Republicans. They opposed protecting U.S. workers from “replacement” by foreign workers. The actual issue is not explained, but the charge taps into the populist anger about stagnant wages, foreign competition, and the globalization that both Clinton and Dole, in fact, have supported. Next, the spot says the Republicans opposed Clinton on more police and anti-drug programs: another effort to pre-empt, or even reverse, a perennial Republican advantage.

During this attack phase, the ad alternates film of House Speaker Newt Gingrich with vaguely relevant footage (What’s inside the rug–an American job or an illegal alien?), while repeatedly referring to “the Dole-Gingrich budget.” But where is Dole? His picture can’t be used because, in theory if not in effect, the ad is an act of legislative advocacy, paid for by the Democratic National Committee, not the Clinton campaign–and legally, Dole, as an ex-senator, can’t be its obvious target. The Clinton campaign converts a legal restriction into a political virtue, marrying Dole to the grainy black-and-white visage of America’s most unpopular politician. By contrast, Clinton appears intermittently in decidedly presidential footage.

The Clinton campaign doesn’t want to be about one or two big things this year; it’s not the economy stupid. This spot is the vivid expression of a strategy of many tactics. There is no message here, but an almost telegraphic mix of hot-button words.

–Robert Shrum