Varnish Remover

Dole vs. Dukakis

Pledge, produced by Don Sipple: New Century Media Group

With Dole far behind, the Republicans are replaying their comeback strategy of 1988: taxes and “character”–this year’s Willie Horton. In this well-produced spot, the intentionally quiet images never get in the way of the message. Made by Don Sipple, the new maestro of the Dole media team, the spot conforms to the letter of the campaign laws, which now count Dole as out of money. The ad is presented (just barely) as legislative advocacy for (just nominally) the Republican National Committee. Democrats play the same game.

The spot begins with footage of Clinton that was originally in color. As usual, the ad turns it black and white–not only so the president won’t look too good, but to create the documentary quality of an old newsreel. The Clinton of 1992 looks and sounds so sincere pledging not to “raise taxes on the middle class”–to provide “tax relief no matter what we do.” We can almost see him biting his lip. This scene is designed to exploit popular attitudes looked for, and found, in GOP polls: people’s skepticism about Clinton’s honesty, as well as their belief that their taxes have been raised. People nearly always believe their taxes have been raised–even when their taxes have been cut.

The spot purports to detail the Clinton tax increase–with a newspaper headline. Conveniently, this “third-party verifier,” the reliably conservative Washington Times, is never identified. The Clinton campaign disputes the charge of “the largest tax increase in history.” But the Republicans offer it without fear of refutation, both because Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it and because it’s not much of a defense to reply that it’s only the second-largest tax increase. (Richard Nixon unwisely argued with John Kennedy over exactly how many millions of hungry children there were in America.)

Notice how the still photos modestly complement, but never distract from, the series of charges–an income-tax form is the visual for “higher income taxes,” an older person the visual for “increased taxes on Social Security,” and so on. The series culminates with a generic photo from a backyard barbecue and text that alleges that the “typical” family pays “$1,583” more in taxes. The number acquires credibility from its very specificity: $1,583 is more authoritative than the narrator’s rounded-off $1,600. And what is a “typical” family? Almost all of Clinton’s tax increase hit high-income people. If you pay a dollar and Warren Buffet’s family pays $1 million, has the “typical” family paid $500,000.50? Technically, yes.

Technical truths are staples of political advertising. So is stamping a negative description, in condemnatory scarlet letters, across an opponent’s picture: “Broken Promises” on taxes.

Note the difference between the narration and the words written across the screen at the end. The narrator makes a campaign appeal, associating Clinton with higher taxes and waste. The screen, to satisfy the law, concludes with a dash of legislative advocacy: Don’t “veto” Republican tax cuts–which, of course, don’t even exist yet.

–By Robert Shrum