Ballot Box

Hot Rats

ST. LOUIS–Joining up with the Bush campaign in Florida yesterday, I was feeling disappointed that I’d missed all the catastrophe of the last few weeks: the failure of Bush’s debate-evasion maneuvers, the fizzle of his first attack ad, assholegate. But dawn broke at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach with fresh disasters aplenty for the Republican nominee. On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer confronted him with two hot stories. The first, from the front page of this morning’s New York Times, alleged that the Republican National Committee burned a subliminal message (“RATS”) into one of its anti-Gore ads. The second, in the new issue of Vanity Fair, asserted that Bush suffers from dyslexia.

What followed was a textbook example of the struggle that goes on all the time between campaign and press corps over control of the news of the day. Bush and his communications director, Karen Hughes, did everything they could to slough off and beat back the two negative news breaks and change the subject back to their daily message, which was Bush’s plan for Medicare reform. But the press pack, determined to report that the candidate’s message was being “overshadowed” by the new revelations, went ahead and overshadowed his message with a message of their own. Bush will make it onto the network news broadcasts tonight, but he’ll be denying that his campaign is using brainwashing techniques in its ads rather than touting his plan for prescription drug coverage for the elderly.

In fact, neither of the two revelations really amounts to news. Fox News reported the “Rats” story on Special Report With Brit Hume Aug. 28, after a producer noticed the split-second image while watching the commercial. No other news organization noticed or picked up Fox’s story, and the Bush campaign felt no compulsion to respond. The story is a bit of a stretch anyhow. The Times story acknowledged that most studies show that subliminal messages don’t work. And what’s to say that viewers associate the subliminal message with Al Gore, rather than with Bush, whose visage also appears in the RNC ad, just after the invisible word? As for Gail Sheehy’s Vanity Fair story, it amounts to cocktail party speculation about why Bush talks funny, not a convincing diagnosis (click here for my own admittedly speculative lay diagnosis of “Specific Language Impairment” and here for “The Complete Bushisms”). So why did these thin stories dominate the day? Because Bush has been having trouble lately, and the press decided to stick with the story that he’s having trouble for a while longer.

No campaign wins a struggle with the press over who gets to choose the story of the day. The media pack chooses by informal consensus, and the campaign is essentially helpless in the face of overwhelming press groupthink. What’s interesting is how different campaigns react to the fact of their helplessness. Today the Bush campaign responded in mostly unhelpful ways, with feeble attempts at humor and heavy spin. Hughes greeted reporters boarding the plane en route to St. Louis with a tray of cheese (rats–geddit?). “At the risk of mixing rodent metaphors, I think the Democrats are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” she said. And Bush, answering questions from reporters on an airport tarmac in Orlando, tried to downplay the charge by noting that the hidden word occupied only “one frame in 900,” which is a bit like saying it’s only a tiny bit of arsenic in a big plate of food, so eat up. In the process, Bush stumbled repeatedly over the word subliminal, rendering it four times as “subliminable,” and thereby adding fuel to the dyslexia story.

Another reason that Bush lost the message battle today was that his preferred message and the way he expressed it were so lame. This morning he appeared at a hospital in Orlando with two cancer survivors and four doctors. Everyone was arranged around a cozy TV studio setup for a chat. And it could have been a fine discussion. The patients and doctors selected to participate had many thoughtful things to say about gaps in insurance coverage, Medicare rules and reimbursements, and biomedical research. But Bush failed to engage with these people and their issues at any level beyond the most superficial and personal. When one of the doctors asked Bush a question, you could see him reaching in his mind for something he knew that would serve as an answer, such as the conservative cliché that “there needs to be more flexibility” in the Medicare program or his line that “it’s like the federal government is the most cumbersome HMO of all” (which is an odd way to sell a plan that would prod more seniors into HMOs).

Bush tried to look interested in the issues the doctors raised, but if you watched his face, you could see he wasn’t. He’d nod in agreement, but without any indication of comprehension. When one of the doctors asked Bush what he would do as president about the daunting bureaucratic obstacles to getting cancer patients into experimental treatment protocols, Bush simply repeated that he wanted to double funding for the National Institutes of Health and then stated, “Medicare needs reform.” When your message is that thin, it’s easy for the rats to overshadow it.

Video frame grab on the Slate Table of Contents from AFP Photo/Ho.