Varnish Remover

Medicare, Technical Truths, and Videotape

Fool, produced by Greg Stevens for Dole/Kemp ‘96.

The Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of lying about their respective Medicare proposals. In fact, neither side is lying: Each selectively cites facts and offers proof. The Republicans say they want to limit the increase of Medicare spending to 7 percent. This is not a cut, they say, just a slowdown in the rate of growth; the president wanted to cut, too. The Democrats maintain that the Republicans’ increase in spending is below the rate of medical inflation (the Republicans respond by pointing to the general rate of inflation). The president trimmed the program only a third as much as the GOP plan–which also would have prevented millions of seniors from choosing their own doctors, and would have denied coverage for services like diabetes blood tests (which Gingrich now promises will be a priority in the next Congress).

Despite the bickering, the Republicans know that Medicare is not their issue. Voters are more likely to believe the Democrats on Medicare and more likely to believe the Republicans on tax cutting, which means that there is a limit to what political ads can do to reshape ingrained attitudes. So until now, the Dole/Kemp ads ignored Medicare almost entirely and engaged in a struggle to make welfare, taxes, and character the defining terrain for voters. Fool, produced by Dole consultant Greg Stevens, abandons that agenda to respond on an issue where Republicans can at best neutralize, not prevail.

This is the rare kind of response ad that actually and almost exclusively responds. Fool is entirely defensive, despite the obligatory knock on the other side’s accuracy. The spot’s life begins dangerously, with an excerpt from the Clinton/Gore ad that not only references, but reinforces the charge that Dole sought to cut Medicare. The second scene even shows Dole with the singularly unpopular Gingrich–the Clinton campaign’s favorite piece of videotape. Fool’s opening is frontal, audacious, maybe foolish, but the Dole strategists obviously decided to take the chance. The red “Wrong” stamped across the scene is a standard technique that does little to detract from the effect of seeing Dole with a man widely seen, fairly or unfairly, as the Darth Vader of Medicare.

The next scenes carry the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) logo and use quotes from one of the lobby’s letters as third-party proof that the Dole-Gingrich Medicare proposal was only to “slow” the program’s growth–and both parties did it anyway. The next quote–about “finger pointing”–seems to point the finger at Clinton. But the AARP fiercely complained that the excerpted quotations were not true to the organization’s letter–which did not take sides against Clinton. The Dole campaign agreed to pull Fool off the air (perhaps, in part, because some inside the campaign thought it was too defensive and raised the salience of Clinton’s best issue).

In the next scene, Dole huddles with seniors on a neighborhood street (is this Russell, Kan.?). The narrator says: “The AARP agrees with Bob Dole”–the words leave the impression that they agree on what’s just been said, and then the narrator continues–“on a bipartisan plan to fix Medicare.” The chyron goes even farther: “The AARP agrees with the Dole plan . …” The admaker would no doubt defend this on the basis that the AARP wants a bipartisan solution; Dole says he does; ergo … a truly tenuous technical truth.

The Dole campaign’s purpose was not to win on the Medicare issue–it can’t overcome a perception that basic–but to neutralize an issue which has hurt so much that Jack Kemp recently complained that the Gingrich budget was a disaster for Republicans. The spot ends with a brief nod to the offense: “Don’t let Clinton fool you”–and notice what’s underlined. “Fool,” of course, is supposed to have a double meaning: That’s what you are if you vote for him.

But then the spot disappeared, and now Election Day dawns.

–Robert Shrum

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