Damned Spot

Morning in America, Revisited

“Social Security” was produced for the Republican National Committee by Alex Castellanos. Click for a transcript of the ad; click here to see it on the Hotline Scoop site. 

To: Jacob Weisberg

From: William Saletan

This ad gives old meaning to the term “hypocrisy.” For four years, Republicans have chastised Democrats for spending soft money on the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign in the guise of “issue” advertising. Now, just hours after hounding the Democratic National Committee for repeating this behavior, the Republican National Committee has copied it.

I thought it was impossible for anyone to display greater contempt for the law on this subject than the DNC did in its ad for Al Gore last week. The RNC has proved me wrong. The DNC ad referred to Gore once and showed him speaking as the words “The Gore Plan” appeared on the screen. The RNC ad refers to Bush five times and praises “George Bush’s voluntary plan,” “the Bush Plan,” and “the Bush blueprint” four times.

Wait, it gets worse. At a press conference unveiling the Republican ad this weekend, RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson used exactly the same sophistry in defense of the Bush ad that DNC National Chairman Joe Andrew used last week in defense of the Gore ad. Andrew argued that all political ads are issue ads—and therefore can be funded with soft money—because politics is about issues. Nicholson argued, “These are issue ads. This campaign is about issues.” Andrew said the Democrats could feature Gore in their ads because he’s their “standard-bearer.” Nicholson said the Republican ad just “gives appropriate credit to Gov. Bush because he’s such a strong proponent” of the GOP’s position on Social Security. When asked whether Gore’s campaign staff had a role in the DNC ad, Andrew said he had “obviously” engaged in “lots of conversations” with Gore’s top campaign aides. When asked whether Bush’s campaign staff had a role in the RNC ad, Nicholson said the RNC has “constant communication with the Bush campaign.”

Not content to match the DNC’s effrontery, the RNC feigns moral superiority. Bush has “a bipartisan plan to strengthen and improve Social Security,” says the Republican ad. At the GOP’s press conference, RNC Vice Chairman Pat Harrison stressed this aspect of the RNC ad: “It’s bipartisan. It’s not attacking.” As opposed to whom? “Al Gore,” she explained. “His attitude is, ‘We can’t do it. You can’t have your money.’ ” The RNC ad is a real issue ad because Bush and the GOP are bipartisan—unlike those nasty Democrats.

Nobody comes out clean here. By abusing campaign-finance loopholes to broadcast a Gore ad with soft money, the DNC shows contempt for the law. By using the Clintonian art of redefinition to rationalize these abuses, the DNC shows contempt for the media’s and the public’s intelligence, adding insult to injury. By resorting to exactly the same loopholes and rationalizations, the RNC adds insult to insult.

To: William Saletan

From: Jacob Weisberg

Here’s the explanation for the duplicity that has you so worked up. There’s a law on the books that says that the parties can’t pay for presidential campaign advertising with soft money. But as we discussed last week in reference to the DNC’s soft-money ad, this law has been rendered inert by the Federal Election Commission’s unwillingness to enforce it. That means that the political parties can spend tens of millions on what clearly is candidate advertising with impunity. But they still can’t flout the letter of the law by admitting what they’re doing. This accounts for the absurd contortions on the part of Joe Andrew and Jim Nicholson.

Enough about that—let’s move on to content analysis. A couple of things seem notable about the ad itself. The first is that it begins with Reaganesque flags and farms. A giant sun rises over golden wheat fields as the announcer begins, “With our nation at peace and more prosperous than ever.” But hang on a minute. How can Republicans be once again declaring it “morning in America” after eight years of what they like to call “Clinton-Gore”? I think they’ve made a shrewd strategic decision here to acknowledge the reality of the country’s rude economic health. The GOP will lose any fight in which it tries to argue that the country is not actually in the good shape it appears to be. So, the Republicans are arguing the best plausible position—that they, not the Democrats, have the best ideas about how to perpetuate and extend the current prosperity.

But when they get down to the specifics of economic policies, the Republicans rely on self-serving distortions to make their case. The other thing that struck me about this ad was its essential dishonesty, greater than that of the Gore-DNC “Prescription Drugs” ad. The Democrats promise new benefits without acknowledging costs, which may be irresponsible but isn’t inherently untruthful. This Bush-RNC ad claims to address the problem of the pending bankruptcy of Social Security, but it proposes a “reform” that would make it worse.

The ad is built around a consciously dishonest premise. That premise is that everyone gets a return from Social Security based on contributions. For older people, the ad promises, there will be “no cuts in Social Security.” As the announcer tells viewers, “you paid into it; it’s your money, and it will be there for you.” Geritol-esque still photos of oldsters enjoying salubrious retirement activities such as fishing and wearing bow ties accompany these words. For young people, the ad promises, there will be the opportunity for an even higher return, should they choose “to invest a small part of their Social Security in sound investments they control for higher returns.”

But Social Security has never worked in this way. It’s true that benefits relate to average contributions over a worker’s life. But the system also redistributes income in two ways—from relatively affluent workers to relatively poorer ones, as well as from current workers to current retirees. The problem the ad is supposed to be addressing is that the Social Security trust fund will be broke in 30 years or so because there will be fewer workers and more retirees. But as Michael Kinsley explained in analyzing the Bush plan recently, his proposal would actually hasten and intensify this problem by reducing the amount of money flowing into the trust fund over the next several decades.

The RNC ad is designed to obfuscate this reality. If government obligations exceed revenues, you can’t solve the problem by reducing revenues. You can only solve it by doing exactly what Bush promises not to do in the blueprint cited in the ad—reduce benefits or raise payroll taxes. It’s this problem, rather than the risk, that Al Gore has been harping on about—that some individual investors will underperform the market and thus have less for the retirement—that constitutes the gaping hole in Bush’s proposal. The system he proposes isn’t intrinsically flawed, but the transition from here to there would cost many trillions of dollars. And about where this money would come from, the RNC ad has—aren’t you very surprised?—nothing to say.

To: Jacob Weisberg

From: William Saletan

I couldn’t agree with you more about the ad’s “morning in America” feel. The opening sequence had me wondering just how long Bush can deny the existence, much less the significance, of Gore’s incumbency. My first thought was: Surely Bush can’t get away with this. Surely people will give the vice president some credit for the current peace and prosperity. But my next thought was: Says who? The more I see of the Bush campaign, the more it looks like a colossal bet against the presumption that the incumbent party will get credit for good times. And why not make that bet? The odds of Bush winning the election this way may be long, but not as long as the odds of him winning it by denying that times are good. It certainly hasn’t hurt him so far.

On the other hand, I wonder whether the message he’s presenting here about Social Security is too mixed to be convincing. Bush is simultaneously promising 1) the same old “guarantees” for today’s old folks; and 2) “personal” accounts with “higher returns” for young folks. Bush tries to keep these messages separate, but the second naturally raises doubts about the first. For younger voters, Social Security privatization has plenty of appeal. But they’ll carry more clout in future elections than in this one. I suspect Bush’s plan will end up causing him serious trouble among voters for whom it’s evening in America.