Frame Game

The Flytrap Ad War

The GOP’s new commercials are brilliant. But will voters see the difference?

Tuesday, one week before the midterm elections, the National Republican Congressional Committee began airing TV ads around the country, reminding voters of President Clinton’s misconduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. (To download video of the ads, click here.) Democrats pounced on the ads, calling them a clumsy rehash of old charges and predicting that they would backfire by antagonizing voters who are sick of the scandal. This is a classic case of self-fulfilling characterization. The ads are actually far more sophisticated than the Democrats admit. But if the press buys the Democrats’ simplistic representation of the ads, they will indeed backfire.

The ads do not rehash the case brought by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Instead, they take into account the political reactions that have since transpired: the public’s fatigue, the backlash against Starr, the demise of the impeachment process, and the scandal’s decline as a news story. The ads counter or, in some cases, exploit these common reactions, which can be summarized as follows:

Reaction 1: “Starr is a partisan zealot.” When the scandal broke in January, Clinton was the center of attention, suspicion, and denunciation. His surrogates responded by diverting scrutiny to Starr’s alleged misdeeds. Millions of Americans would like to vote against both men. With that in mind, the Republican ads push Clinton back to center stage. The first ad, titled One Person, shows video footage of Clinton wagging his finger in January as he falsely denied his affair with Lewinsky. “There’s one person who doesn’t want the Republicans in charge,” the narrator reminds viewers. The ad never mentions the scandal, nor does it include the audio of Clinton’s denial. It doesn’t need to. We all remember the wagging finger.

Making the president the issue is a classic opposition-party strategy. In 1994, Republicans captured Congress by framing the election as a referendum on Clinton’s 1993 “tax increase” (a k a deficit-reduction package) and his failed national health insurance proposal. In 1996, they conceded Clinton’s re-election and warned voters that Democratic control of Congress would give him a “blank check.” The GOP’s 1998 ads make the same point, relying this time on the word “balance.” “Republicans are the balance we need,” says the tag line of one ad. “For balance, vote Republican,” says another.

Reaction 2: “Clinton’s offenses aren’t impeachable.” For several weeks in August and September, it looked as though Congress might remove Clinton from office or force him to resign. But public support failed to materialize, Starr’s report ignited a backlash, and Congress lost its nerve. Now it looks as though Clinton will escape punishment. That’s good for Clinton but perhaps bad for Democrats. If impeachment is moot, the most obvious way to punish Clinton is to vote against his party in the elections.

This is the message of the second Republican ad, titled Reward. Its language is a textbook frame job: “In every election, there is a big question to think about. This year, the question is: Should we reward Bill Clinton? Should we make the Democrats more powerful? … And should we reward not telling the truth? That is the question of this election: Reward Bill Clinton, or vote Republican?” Since Clinton won’t be impeached, the ad suggests, his reward or punishment is in your hands. “Electing Republicans is a way [voters] can punish Clinton,” says a strategist who helped design the commercials.

Reaction 3: “Stop the investigation and prosecution.” Most people find Clinton’s behavior reprehensible but don’t think it should be prosecuted by an independent counsel or investigated by Congress. They think Clinton had sex with Lewinsky and lied about it, but they don’t consider this a crime. Clinton’s surrogates have exploited this paradox by accusing Starr, Republicans in Congress, and conservative Clinton haters of conspiring to “criminalize” their war against Clinton.

The ads respect this distinction by focusing entirely on morals and lying to the public. The most striking thing about them is that they avoid any mention of the charges Starr has leveled against Clinton. Instead, they highlight the moral rather than legal aspects of Clinton’s offenses. And rather than dwell on Clinton’s offstage lies to Paula Jones’ lawyers or to the Starr grand jury, the ads spotlight his center-stage lies to the public on television. They don’t mention sex, the affair, or anything that ordinary people might deem private. Only Clinton’s public deceit is at issue.

The third ad, What Did You Tell Your Kids?, illustrates the Republican strategy. It features one young suburban mother talking to another. “What did you tell your kids?” asks the first woman. “I didn’t know what to say,” answers the second. The first woman replies: “It’s wrong. For seven months he lied to us.” Like the finger-wagging scene in One Person, this ad reminds viewers not of what Clinton did to Jones or Starr but of what he did to us. It doesn’t say his lies were criminal; it merely says they were wrong. This isn’t an abstract matter of law, the ad suggests. It’s about your kids.

A fourth ad, reportedly set to begin airing Friday, drives home the point. “Remember when he looked us in the eye?” asks the narrator as Clinton wags his finger. “Then the legal mumbo jumbo,” the ad recalls. It goes on to quote the Democratic Party chairman’s praise for Clinton’s “moral leadership.” Again, the point is to bypass the troubled legal case against Clinton and to focus instead on the overwhelming moral case. Indeed, the ad accuses Clinton, rather than his critics, of invoking “legal mumbo jumbo” to obscure the immorality of his misconduct.

Reaction 4: “Get on with the people’s business.” Once Congress took up Starr’s report, the electorate’s hostility to the investigation shifted to the GOP. Each of the Republican ads acknowledges and answers the public’s desire to see other issues discussed. “But aren’t there other things to do?” asks the second mother in What Did You Tell Your Kids? The first mother then explains that “the Republicans are doing them. They cut taxes, they helped balance the budget, and they’re putting people on welfare back to work.”

The first ad, One Person, addresses this complaint in a different way, by situating Clinton’s lies about Lewinsky in a larger critique of his honesty about public matters. It begins with video clips of Clinton contradicting himself on how long it will take to balance the budget. The ad dwells entirely on fiscal questions such as Social Security. Only at the end does it show him wagging his finger about Lewinsky. The message is that you should vote against Clinton not because he lied about sex but because he lies about everything.

Unfortunately for the GOP, the sophistication and delicacy of the ads is already being overwhelmed by the Democrats’ simplification of them. In a Rose Garden appearance Wednesday, Clinton charged that Republicans are trying to “divert your attention” from “the American people and their families and their future.” Vice President Al Gore, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Democratic Party officials equated the ads with previous efforts to “investigate” and “impeach” Clinton over his “sex life.” As Gore put it, “The American people will look at these ads and say enough is enough. Get on with the business of the American people and talk about the real issues.”

The danger for the GOP is that more voters will see shallow media coverage of the ads–“GOP revives Clinton sex scandal”–than will see the ads themselves. “Scandal ads hit campaign,” shouts the front-page headline in USA Today. “President Says Policies Are the Real Issue,” says the Washington Post’s front page. Images from the ads dominate the front page of the New York Times, under the oversized caption “Angles of G.O.P. Attack.” Civility may be the first casualty of any election, but subtlety is always the last.

Recent “Frame Games”

Clinton’s Peace Therapy“: Is the Middle East deal a new chapter or a reminder of Monica? (posted Wednesday, Oct. 28, 1998)

The Microsoft Trial“: The lesson of Flytrap is to attack the inquisition. (posted Wednesday, Oct. 21, 1998)