Varnish Remover

Risky Business

Tell, produced by Bob Squier of Squier, Knapp & Ochs for the Clinton campaign.

Tell–the Clinton campaign’s new spot that aired two days before Bob Dole’s acceptance speech–all but defines a rapid-response ad.

The spot capitalizes on the ambivalence greeting Dole’s 15 percent tax-cut proposal: The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows that voters aren’t sure the cut is good for the country, but still favor it 61 percent to 33 percent. Tell’s strategy is to highlight the cut’s dangers without mentioning the benefits.

Tell begins with shots of the “Old Dole” filmed in the “attack colors” of black and white. It rips Dole’s economic proposal, but avoids calling it a tax cut. Instead, the narrator warns of “Dole’s risky economic scheme. … He still won’t tell us how he’ll pay for it all.” The word “risky,” displayed as a bold chyron atop the Dole footage, bolsters this idea. So does a quotation from Business Week–also shown as a bold chyron–asserting that under the Dole plan, we can expect the “deficit to balloon.”

That Dole is silent about how he’ll finance his “scheme” makes his plan sound like a Democratic giveaway program. This is more political jujitsu from Clinton guru Dick Morris, who continues to pre-empt the other side.

Although the Dole proposal is straight out of Reagan’s 1980 tax-cut playbook, Tell tilts not against Reagan, but against Bush. The next shots plunge the viewer into scenes from the Bush recession: an empty factory; a family apparently struggling to pay its bills; a “Plant Closed” sign; a bold “1991” chyron over a poster for a going-out-of-business sale. Tell poses the question, “Are you better off than you were five years ago?” and suggests that a vote for Dole would return us to the grim black and white of the past.

The spot’s next target is the Republican Congress. The narrator says that “Dole’s campaign co-chair, Sen. D’Amato” (note the studied political correctness of “co-chair”) might raise Medicare premiums to “help” pay for Dole’s “promises.” Again, there is no mention of the 15 percent tax cut–and the word “help” reminds the viewer that we still don’t know how the Dole plan will be financed. The message is driven home as the camera pans across a doctor’s office to an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

Medicare is what broke the Gingrich Congress, so Tell naturally pairs Gingrich with Dole, who is shown yielding the microphone to Newt. Better than any narrator’s accusations, this visual conveys the argument that it if Dole wins, Gingrich will run the government and cut Medicare, Social Security, education. Positioning Gingrich, not Jack Kemp, as Dole’s running mate will be a recurring Clinton tactic.

The spot finally shifts to Clinton, filmed at the White House in glorious color. The previously ominous music is replaced with an uplifting theme. Reaganism is reprised, with a reference to a $100 billion tax cut–but the tax cut is Clinton’s. This is the first time the magic words “tax cut” appear in Tell. The message is that Clinton can make his cuts work while “balancing the budget.” We see a worker clocking in while the narrator points to 10 million new jobs and, as the spot cuts to a Kennedyesque Clinton with children, it concludes with the phrase “a better future.”

Tell is essentially about the past–Clinton’s economic success vs. Bush’s recession and Gingrich’s Congress. Expect Dole to respond by emphasizing that his 15 percent tax cut solves the problem not yet addressed by the Clinton recovery: that real wages for most workers have stagnated.

With Dole at last in the race and equal to Clinton in campaign dollars, the struggle to define the choice will peak. Will voters go for the Dole tax cut, the Republican equivalent of a 15 percent wage increase? Or will they stay with a president who claims to have ended the Bush recession and who offers a lesser tax cut? Framing the election around the desirability of tax cuts is risky business for Clinton; since the age of Reagan, the public assumes that the Republicans are the anti-tax party.

–Robert Shrum