Damned Spot

I Constitutionalize Your Pain 

“Protect” was produced for the Democratic National Committee by Democratic Victory 2000, a group made up of Squier Knapp Dunn, Shrum Devine Donilon, and Carter Eskew. For a transcript of the ad, click. 

From: Chris Suellentrop

To: William Saletan

Protect The genius of this ad, which endorses a constitutional amendment to protect victims’ rights, is that it makes Al Gore look both compassionate and tough on crime. (Gore’s campaign stop today in Memphis, Tenn., to promote the amendment achieved the same purpose.) Gore’s dearest wish is that this election will mimic 1988, when Vice President George Bush demagogued Michael Dukakis to death on issues such as prison furloughs and flag burning. But since the public hasn’t responded to Gore’s angry rants about risky tax, foreign policy, and Social Security schemes, he (excuse me, the Democratic National Committee) is now releasing ads such as this one, in which he plays the “semigogue,” a kinder, gentler demagogue.

As Jack Shafer pointed out four years ago, President Clinton is the nation’s premier semigogue, appealing to our emotions to pass “therapeutic laws.” Therapeutic laws, of which a victims’ rights amendment is a prime example, are designed to make us feel good but not to really do anything. This ad shows Gore has learned from the master. He doesn’t tell us what his proposed amendment will actually say. All he says is, “So, for example, if somebody has been a crime victim and the person who committed that crime is about to be released, they ought to be notified. If there’s a trial they ought to have a right to speak to the jury. The people who are hurt by crime need to be heard.”

Would Gore’s amendment increase conviction rates? He doesn’t say. Lengthen sentences? He doesn’t tell us. Prevent crime? Who knows? All it will do is allow crime victims to be “heard.” It’s not just therapeutic. It’s interactive. Victims’ rights: the criminal-justice equivalent of ” The Fray.”

From: William Saletan

To: Chris Suellentrop

This is classic centrist symbolism. Eight years ago, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton declared, “I do want to say something to the fathers in this country who have chosen to abandon their children by neglecting their child support: Take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do so, because governments don’t raise children, parents do—and you should.” The delegates roared their approval, but the real targets and appreciators of that line were the millions of swing voters who had come to regard Democrats as soft on family values. Clinton’s jolt of moral affirmation opened their minds to his candidacy. That’s what Gore is doing here. He’s tired of coddling “accused criminals.” He’s for “victims’ rights.”

What’s striking, as you’ve pointed out, is the pure symbolism of the rhetoric. What, according to Gore, do “victims’ rights” amount to? The right “to speak to the jury,” “to be heard,” and “to be notified”—in short, the right to express your feelings and to receive an after-the-fact courtesy. For all the talk of “guarantees” and “protection,” there’s no “guarantee” that your speech will carry any weight with the jury. And your right to be notified that your daughter’s rapist is about to be released presumes that the release will happen whether you like it or not.

I wouldn’t mind the gesture much if it were truly empty. But in this case, it carries a substantial price: It cheapens the nation’s defining document. In this ad, Gore treats “constitutional amendment” as though it’s just another impressive word, like “guarantee” or “protection.” As he delivers each of the words “constitutional amendment,” he pounds the air for emphasis, and the ad leaps through a snazzy audio-visual warp to the next scene. The transition is designed to make viewers remember those two words. The ad continues with that theme, ending with the phrase “The Gore Plan: Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights” on the screen. Hey, if the original Bill of Rights was a good idea, why not another one? Patients’ Bill of Rights, Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, whatever. It’s all marketing.

That wasn’t how the guys who wrote the Constitution saw it. I guess they were just naive.