Varnish Remover

The War Room Strikes Back

Hold, a 30-second clip produced for the Clinton campaign by Bob Squier of Squier, Knapp & Ochs.

Republican commercials are laboring to make taxes and character the central issues of the presidential campaign. The Clinton War Room–a state of mind this year, not a place–strikes back with Hold, a tough, frontal (and potentially dangerous) response prepared by adman Bob Squier at the direction of the president’s chief strategist, Dick Morris.

The Clinton ad begins not with the issue of taxes but with character, accusing Dole of engaging in the old “attack” politics (proving once again that the best use of negatives can be accusing the other guy of going negative). The bold red chyrons used in the ad–scarlet letters that appear here and later in the spot–are a chromatic charge of wrongdoing leveled against Dole. Hold both responds to the tax attacks made by Dole and sows seeds of doubt about future Republican assaults. The timing is excellent: According to the polls, Clinton has been attacked so often that he is in need of a Teflon coating.

Hold presents Dole in age-emphasizing black-and-white videotape, with a drawing of the Capitol in the background, indicating that the former senator hasn’t left that unpopular venue. Color footage, complete with a shot of the Marine band in the background, lends Clinton presidential depth and authority. The ad argues that Clinton cut taxes, thereby confronting both the tax issue and the conventional wisdom about him and his party. (Voters believe that Clinton raised taxes and generally resist any argument that Democrats are better at reducing taxes.)

The danger of Hold lies in its boldness. If taxes became the defining issue, the terrain would naturally favor Dole. But if Clinton seizes the tax issue, what does Dole have left? This calculus of risk and gain reflects the thinking of Morris, a Clinton consultant in the early ‘80s who switched parties and often deployed taxes as a wedge issue to get Republicans elected.

Clinton’s claim in Hold that he has cut taxes for “working families” is based on the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps the working poor. The choice of language–“working families”–plays on the fact that most Americans view themselves that way. The narration and visual swiftly move on to “tax credits for college”–which polls report as more popular than Dole’s widely anticipated proposal for a 10 or 15 percent across-the-board tax cut.

Hold discounts the popular assumption that Republicans are tax cutters by citing areas where it’s believable that they would increase taxes–“working families” and “Social Security”–areas where Democrats have the natural advantage. Dole, again in ghostly black and white, is paired with Gingrich (who owns the highest negative ratings of any national figure) in footage that runs in slow motion, making him look older and less vigorous. Meanwhile, a list of Dole tax increases scrolls up the screen, annotated with specific bill numbers as proof.

Dole’s tax-raising sins are totaled in red at $900 billion. Even “Republicans” are appalled, the spot suggests, citing a Time magazine article (from 12 years ago). The appalled Republican quoted in the magazine–but not named in the spot–is Newt Gingrich, who was then a backbencher in the House.

Dole appears briefly in color–a visual cue that we are now watching him on the stump and not in Congress–and promises that we are about to see “the real Bob Dole.” This implies that there are at least two Doles, setting up the conclusion that the campaigning, tax-cutting Dole is the phony. The real Dole, the spot tells us–and not just in words–is the aged career politician who has spent 35 years raising your taxes.

Hold goes against the grain of popular assumptions about Democrats and taxes; but it doesn’t need to convince completely. The tactic is to fight Dole to a draw or a near-draw on the tax issue; that would be an intermediate victory for Clinton, and make a November victory more likely.

–Robert Shrum