Varnish Remover

Let Dole Be Reagan

The Plan, created by the all-star Republican media team assembled for the general election, is a disciplined exposition of the dominant Dole/Kemp message that emerged after the candidate took his foot out of his mouth and started running again. The strategy is clear and politically smart: “Let Dole Be Reagan,” complete with a partner who is the original supply-sider, co-author of Reagan’s 1981 Kemp/Roth tax cut.

This spot kidnaps the wage issue, which historically has belonged to the party of labor, not the party of big business. The first two scenes reach for the Reagan Democrats, depicting the blue- and new-collar middle class that loved Reagan but deposed Bush in 1992. Dole’s voice-over describes the wage gap they face in simple words: They’re “working harder and longer but taking home less.”

Indeed, middle-class income, which rose 1.7 percent a year under Reagan, has stagnated during the Clinton recovery. The president has entertained proposals offered by Kennedy, Gephardt, and Reich to boost wages–such as new incentives for corporations to share soaring profits with workers. But instead of drawing attention to economic problems, the prevailing Clinton rule is to emphasize the good news.

The Old Dole would have produced a spot that analyzed the economy in statistical and legislative terms; the New Dole of The Plan speaks directly into the camera in human terms, in Reaganesque language, about a family spending more on taxes than on “food, clothing, and housing combined.” Visually, the spot returns to the office-like scene of Dole’s disastrous State of the Union response, but this time the lighting is right, and Dole finally looks presidential. (Last January, he was done in more by shadows than by substance.)

The presidential Dole is shown talking with the workers he claims to identify with, and the voice-over switches to a narrator, who describes “the Dole Economic Plan.” The next scene has no distracting images, just words, numbers, and this focus: a “15 Percent Tax Cut for Every Taxpayer.” The absence of any reinforcing visual actually makes the simple message all the more vivid.

The visual segues to a nuclear family, unifying two different Republican messages–the moral and the material: The scene all but shouts that tax cuts are a family value. The spot then computes what a 15 percent cut will mean to the average family. As we’ve seen in other ads, the specificity of the number–$1,657 instead of $1,600–is designed to secure credibility. Who would bother to make up the extra $57?

Just before The Plan closes, we return to Dole chatting with a woman holding an infant, a scene that further humanizes the tax plan and helps close the gender gap. The narrator’s words about Americans keeping more of what they earn complete the message. The subtext is that this may be the only real-income increase hard-pressed workers will get.

The final scene relies once more on text in big letters to blend the tax issue–“a better America”–with the character issue–Dole as “a better man.” The Plan dispels the notion that Dole is Rush Limbaugh, personally attacking the president, or Newt Gingrich, savaging Medicare. He’s Ronald Reagan–and to prove it, he has the true-believing Jack Kemp as his running mate. The spot, first broadcast four days before Kemp was picked, reveals the logic of the choice and makes it less of a surprise, even to Dole. Last week, as Dole stood in Russell, Kan., watching Kemp speak, the TV news made him look like a man receiving a transfusion. He had a new sense of spirit, a Reagan/Kemp tax cut. He smiled, and his color brightened to a paler Reaganism. Dole may not win, but maybe now he won’t be disgraced.

–Robert ShrumRobert Shrum is a leading Democratic political consultant. His deconstruction of political ads will be a weekly feature of Slate during the election season.

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