Damned Spot

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“Trust” was produced by Maverick Media for Bush-Cheney 2000 and the Republican National Committee. For a transcript of the ad, click.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

This is the ad Bush should have been running all along. Stripped of the illusion that he could coast to victory on Clinton fatigue, he has finally buckled down to the business of building a substantive campaign theme. And it’s a good one. The Bush team has reframed the traditional conservative dichotomy—government vs. the individual—to match Bush’s mushy, upbeat persona.

The opening shot sets the tone of familial warmth: Bush smiles into the camera with a beatific twinkle as he affirms his confidence in the viewer. Where an old-style Republican would be more comfortable railing against big government, Bush turns instead to the positive side of his party’s message: “That’s the difference in philosophy between my opponent and me. He trusts government. I trust you.” As Bush speaks, this shot reappears throughout the ad. The loving gaze never falters. You have the feeling the governor is about to slide a hand around your back to give you a pat of friendly intimacy or even paternal reassurance.

The principal elements of Bush’s agenda fall perfectly into place: “I trust you to invest some of your own Social Security money for higher returns. I trust local people to run their own schools. … I trust you with some of the budget surplus.” It’s a wonder Bush’s ad makers are only now learning to package his proposals with such elegant simplicity. They were so busy alternating nods to compassion with nods to conservatism that they’d forgotten how the two themes could work together.

In case Bush’s voice fails to implant the ad’s key words in your memory, they appear intermittently on the screen beside him: “responsibility,” “accountable,” “trust,” “local control,” “performance,” “options,” “surplus,” “trust” (again), “local control” (again). Between gazes, we see the usual images of black and brown schoolchildren, along with a few hardhats and a mother and child. “I believe in government that is responsible to the people,” the governor explains. Bush isn’t trying to rip welfare money out of the hands of the undeserving. He’s leaving that shtick to Pat Buchanan. Bush, inverting the politics of Bill Bradley and other old-fashioned liberals, is running on an appeal to goodness and faith: I’m from the anti-government party, and I’m here to help.

By extending the ad to a full minute, Bush gives himself time not only to explain his tax cut but also to trash Al Gore’s. Pivoting on the ad’s theme, Bush frames Gore’s plan as an expression of distrust. “My opponent proposes targeted tax cuts only for those he calls ‘the right people,’ ” says the governor. “We should help people live their lives but not run them.” I could have sworn that the last time I heard these candidates talking about abortion and homosexuality, Bush was the one who wanted to run citizens’ lives and reserve privileges for the right people. But he seems so trusting in this ad, surely I can trust him, too. 

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

“Trust” puts me in mind of one of my favorite movies, David Mamet’s House of Games. I’m thinking of the scene in which the con artist played by Joe Mantegna explains how to run a scam on a stranger. You don’t ask the mark to trust you. Instead, you give the gullible stranger your confidence. Once you’ve entrusted someone with your money, that person is ready to hand you his.

The Bush ad works on the same reciprocal principle. At this point in history, it’s not effective for a politician to say, “Trust me.” So Bush keeps repeating that he “trusts you”—to invest some of your Social Security taxes, to control local schools, and to retain a portion of the budget surplus. Because Bush trusts you on all these issues, you’re supposed to trust him back. This powerful psychological message finds tonal support in an understated spot that lasts a full, trustworthy 60 seconds and draws heavily on the candidate himself talking straight into the camera.

For a candidate to offer the public his trust in this way is an appeal to emotion, not reason—which may be a hint that the ad is targeted at women. If someone trusts you without knowing anything about you, that person is being naive. But it’s hard not to like someone who views the world in such a trusting fashion—it’s the candidate as Candide. If, however, you apply a bit of hardheaded logic to the issues Bush frames in this way—something he trusts you won’t do—the construct melts away.

Bush says, “I trust you to invest some of your own Social Security money for higher returns.” What does this mean, exactly? That Bush trusts that every person will invest his or her retirement funds profitably in the market? Or that individual investment accounts alone will solve Social Security’s long-term fiscal shortfall? Both notions are wrong. The first is preposterous, the second fallacious.

Bush says, “I trust local people to run their own schools.” But running their own schools is exactly what “local people” have been doing since time immemorial. By insisting on “performance” in exchange for federal money, as Bush explains that he wants to do in his next sentence, he may be doing something useful, but he isn’t relying on trust. He’s relying on pressure and financial incentives from the federal government.

Finally Bush says, “I trust you with some of the budget surplus.” You know what that means by now—he wants to return a large portion of the projected surplus to taxpayers in the form of a tax cut. But again, whether that idea is sensible or foolish, it’s a stretch to say it has anything to do with “trust.” It’s about budgetary priorities. Unlike Gore, Bush puts his tax cut ahead of additional spending or debt reduction. Moreover, as you point out, the “I trust you” gimmick doesn’t apply very well to Bush’s positions on a host of social issues the ad never mentions, such as abortion. Al Gore made this point in the first debate : Bush trusts government to make a decision that the vice president would leave to women.

The ad tries to use the same House of Games trick to denigrate the other side. Al Gore (“my opponent”) doesn’t trust you, Bush tells the camera. “He trusts the government.” Hence, by implication, you would have to be an idiot to trust Gore. But in talking about Gore, Bush adjusts reality to fit his governing conceit. He claims that the vice president “proposes targeted tax cuts only for those he calls ‘the right people.’ ” This is a clever attempt to make Gore’s downscale tax cut sound like a handout to people who drive Volvos and eat imported cheese. In fact, Gore never said anything about the “the right people,” as Bush implies. His tax cut is simply more targeted and conditional than Bush’s is.

I agree with you that “Trust” offers a stronger unifying theme than the Bush campaign has come up with previously. It is a well-made, superficially compelling ad. But when you think about what Bush is really saying, it’s just a confidence trick.