Varnish Remover

The Drug War

The News, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s swipe at Democratic opponent Victor Morales, is a standard comparative ad in three chapters: “Problem,” “Good Guy,” and “Bad Guy.” It opens with a favorite image from the 1996 political season, a black-and-white close-up of a bag of drugs. The narration implies that the reason kids are using drugs is that we’re not tough on pushers, who get just “a slap on the wrist.” Valid or not, the view mirrors opinion polls. The language of the ad is pretested, and this initial argument will encounter little voter resistance. A subsequent image–a slow fade on a group of schoolkids, an American flag behind them–is a powerful one. It tells us visually that the America we want is fading away.

Next, we see the Good Guy–Phil Gramm. He’s depicted in a photograph, not on film. During the presidential primaries, ad tests showed that voters reacted negatively to Gramm speaking. So here he is, smiling, but in the safety of a still image. A shot of a congressional bill and a blowup quote provide symbolic third-party verification that the senator “has a plan” to get tough on pushers. Gramm’s picture promptly disappears, but its brief presence qualifies the ad for the more lenient federal rules about “candidate” spots: Such spots can’t be censored, and the stations must sell the time at a lower “political” rate.

Gramm maintains a presence in the spot via a chyron (text on the screen): “The Gramm Plan.” This plan consists, in part, of a 10-year sentence with no parole for pushers–another pretested winner in polls. The second element of the plan–life sentences for pushers who “exploit” kids–strikes another responsive chord by raising the specter of molestation. The Gramm Plan is accompanied by color film of prisoners behind bars. Why color? Because in this spot, putting more offenders in jail is a happy result.

The News now cuts to a film clip of Morales, a schoolteacher who won a stunning upset victory in the Democratic primary. The clip cleverly gives the impression that Morales is actually saying what’s written on screen and sourced to a local paper: that he opposes longer sentences as a deterrent against crime. The spot nails him as an opponent of Gramm’s get-tough approach, as a liberal softy. The red background complements the negative text and images.

Ironically, the spot concludes by riffing on the slogan long used by liberal Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and adopted by Michael Dukakis in 1988: “Who’s on your side?” The strategy here: to invite voters to judge on the basis of social, not economic, issues.

The News attempts to set the campaign agenda. How can the underfunded Morales expect to raise issues such as Medicare, jobs, or education in his spots when he’s tied down defending himself against the Gramm blitz?

The News echoes and reinforces the message in Bob Dole’s ads and speeches: Democrats are weak on drugs. No accident there: The News was produced by Alex Castellanos, one of the new members of Dole’s media team.

–Robert Shrum