Damned Spot

Customized Cons

“Needle,” “Don’t,” and “Aprons” were produced by Democratic Victory 2000 for the Democratic National Committee. “Gore-gantuan” and “Big Relief vs. Big Spending” were produced by Cold Harbor Films for the Republican National Committee. To see transcripts of the ads, click.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

If you want to see the inspiration for this round of new Democratic National Committee spots, I recommend a visit to the American Museum of the Moving Image’s terrific online exhibition “The Living Room Candidate,” which lets you watch how presidential TV advertising has evolved since 1952. Click on the year 1988 and watch the George H.W. Bush ad about Michael Dukakis and Boston Harbor. As mages of revolting pollution go by, the announcer explains that as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis did nothing to clean up the harbor. “And Michael Dukakis promises to do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts,” the ad concludes. You may remember another 1988 Bush spot that made a similar point about the Massachusetts prison furlough policy.

Now Al Gore is using the same trick against the younger Bush, charging that the governor of Texas has a lot to be embarrassed about back home. The difference is that the DNC is targeting these assaults much more narrowly, shipping pieces of Bush’s Texas baggage separately to the battleground states likely to be most bothered by them. If I’m not mistaken, this type of micro-scare mongering counts as yet another heroic breakthrough in presidential TV advertising.

In Washington state, where people are said to care about the environment, the Gore ad called “Needle” shows us the visual trademark of the Seattle skyline shrouded in Houston-level smog. “Now take a deep breath and imagine Seattle with Bush’s Texas-style environmental regulation,” the announcer suggests. (Another version of the ad asks whether Floridians would like all those tons of Texas toxins dumped in the Everglades.) In Iowa, which prides itself on being a salubrious place to raise children, the ad titled “Don’t” conjures a vision of Southern standards blighting the Midwestern prairie. “Iowa doesn’t need a Texas plan for our children and schools,” the announcer says. And in economically challenged West Virginia, another spot reminds viewers that Bush is no friend of the minimum wage. “Six times the Legislature tried to raise the minimum wage and Bush’s inaction helped kill it,” the ad notes.

Many of the specific claims used to back up these assertions are suspect. The Iowa ad, for instance, notes that Texas’ SAT rank has declined to 47th. There’s a lot wrong with that statistic. For one thing, it’s out of date, based on data collected in 1996 and 1997, just after Bush became governor. But more importantly, it ignores the fact that more poor and minority teen-agers have been taking the SAT in Texas, which is good news, even though it tends to drive average scores lower. More generally, there’s not much support for the notion that Bush has made Texas worse educationally—or that Iowa would inherit Texas’ social and economic problems if he became president. As for air pollution, the biggest problem in Texas comes from industrial plants built before 1971, which retained grandfather-clause protection when the Clean Air Act was originally passed. While it’s certainly fair to fault Bush for not doing more to tackle this issue as governor, his state’s specific problem isn’t likely to visit the Pacific Northwest, which lacks belching, technologically outmoded oil refineries.

The new Republican National Committee ads, by contrast, stick with a more traditional kind of macro-scare mongering. The claim in both of these unimaginative, all-text spots is that Gore will be bad for the economy. The first of the pair, “Gore-gantuan,” focuses on the idea that Gore would spend so much on new programs that he would exhaust a budget surplus projected to be “$8000 for each American.” The second ad, “Big Relief vs. Big Spending,” suggests that Bush’s economic plan would be “best for you,” because it includes a big tax cut, whereas Gore would blow the whole surplus on an orgy of new spending. Both of the ads build up to the same, apparently devastating charge that Gore wants a bigger federal government. “Gore’s big government spending plan threatens American prosperity,” the announcer says.

These Republican ads are no less misleading than the Democratic ones. “Gore-gantuan” makes the claim that Gore is proposing three times as much spending as President Clinton originally did. Not so. The sources for this assertion cited in small type at the bottom of the screen are “Clinton ‘92” and “National Taxpayer’s Union.” In other words, the ad compares Clinton’s own estimate of the 10-year cost of his 1992 economic program, adjusted for inflation—$800 billion—to a conservative group’s estimate of Gore’s plan—$2.9 billion. An apples-to-apples comparison would show that the amount of spending Clinton called for in 1992 is roughly equivalent to what Gore’s is proposing this time around, namely $800 billion over 10 years.

The other RNC ad is deceptive in a different way. By comparing Bush’s “tax relief” plan to Gore’s “spending” plan, it implies that Gore has no tax-cut proposal, which of course he does. The numbers also suggest that Bush’s tax plan is larger and more sweeping than it really is. According to the chart, families earning $35,000-$50,000 get a 55 percent tax cut. In fact, only families with two or more children would get a break that large. The numbers in the chart also disregard payroll taxes, which account for the bulk of federal taxes paid by lower income workers. Nor do they figure in Bush’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax, which would make the tax reduction for those earning over $100,000 appear larger.

So all of the new soft-money ads are dishonest. But while Gore’s narrow-casting is more creative, Bush’s broad brush may prove more effective.

From: William Saletan
Jacob Weisberg

While media attention has been distracted by the partly sunny, Muzak-filled ads run by the Gore and Bush campaigns, I suspect these DNC and RNC spots are the ones doing the real dirty work of moving votes in key states. They’re certainly more focused and hard-hitting. You’re exactly right about the echoes of the 1988 Boston Harbor ad in “Needle.” The environment can be a hard issue to drive home in debates, but it’s terrific on TV because the images—in this case, a smog-obscured skyline—are more powerful than the words. I love the DNC’s aside about pollution in Texas at “plants near schools.” Do the Democrats think they can undercut Bush’s education message by talking about smokestacks next to schoolyards?

“Don’t” applies fuzzy math not only to SAT scores, as you note, but also to the question of which states are the best or worst places to raise a child. The DNC cites a report by the Children’s Rights Council that ranks Texas 49th. But that report is more than a year old. When I called the Children’s Rights Council, they explained that they hadn’t updated the report, and they referred me to the Annie E. Casey Foundation for this year’s update. The Casey report ranks Texas 37th, because it uses different criteria from the ones used by the Children’s Rights Council. I don’t know which criteria are more appropriate. But I do know that the DNC chose the ones that made Texas look worse, even though they’re out of date.

“Aprons” illustrates the fine art of translating neutrality into hostility. Bush didn’t explicitly oppose the proposed minimum-wage increase in Texas. Nor did he propose to lower the federal minimum wage. But the ad interprets his positions, or lack thereof, as though he did. His “inaction helped kill” legislation to raise the minimum wage in Texas, and he said that as president “he’d allow states to set a minimum wage lower than the federal standard.” Passivity and “allowing” states to make their own policy become, in the language of this commercial, a deliberate assault on low-wage workers.

The RNC ads turn the Gore campaign’s strategy on its head. Yes, says the RNC, prosperity is on the ballot. But according to the closing lines of both ads, the radical who “threatens America’s prosperity” isn’t Bush. It’s Gore. Yes, Gore is “his own man,” not Clinton’s. But the difference between Gore and Clinton isn’t that Gore is ethical. The difference is that Gore wants “three times the new spending President Clinton proposed.” Yes, Gore will spend more on education and health care than Bush will. But that doesn’t mean Gore cares more about education and health care. It just means he wants “big government spending.” The RNC is driving a wedge between Clinton and Gore in 2000, which the DNC failed to do to Reagan and Bush in 1988.

You’ve identified the central sleight-of-hand in “‘Big Relief vs. Big Spending”: “By comparing Bush’s ‘tax relief’ plan to Gore’s ‘spending’ plan, it implies that Gore has no tax cut proposal.” At the risk of sounding like Gore in the second debate, I couldn’t agree more. The ad might as well say, “George Bush gave his children presents for Christmas. Al Gore made his children wash the dishes.” The statement might be technically true, but everyone knows the juxtaposition is intended to imply that Gore didn’t give his children Christmas presents.

In addition to omitting the payroll tax, which you point out, “Big Relief” skews Bush’s tax cut data in another way. The ad’s visual centerpiece is a table correlating income brackets with the percentage tax cut each bracket would get under Bush. A family with two kids and $40,000 in income gets a 55 percent tax cut, while a family with two kids and $400,000 in income gets only a 10 percent tax cut. Because the rich family’s tax bill far exceeds the middle-class family’s tax bill, the rich family gets a far bigger check than the poor family does. By drawing up the table in terms of percentages, this ad obscures that difference.

Of course, Gore is skewing the data just as egregiously by contrasting the aggregate amount of money the rich would get under Bush’s tax cut over 10 years with the daily amount (in pennies) each working poor family would get. What worries me is the prospect that voters will become so cynical about each side’s fuzzy math that we’ll forget there’s such a thing as real math, a standard to which both campaigns can be held accountable.