Damned Spot

Gore’s Final Offensive

“Next,” “Word,” “Prosperity 2,” and “Doesn’t Add” were produced for the Gore campaign by the Campaign Company, which also produced “Myth” for the Democratic National Committee. For transcripts of the ads, click. To see “Next” on the Gore campaign Web site, click here. To see “Word,” click here. To see “Prosperity 2,” click here. To see “Myth” on the SpeakOut site, click here.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

There were few things more certain in this campaign than the inevitability of Al Gore attacking his opponent, in the final weeks, for endangering Social Security. Gore is a strikingly unoriginal politician, and this maneuver is on the first page of his party’s playbook. That the charge happens to be true this time around is a kind of unexpected bonus.

The two ads on this topic, the Gore campaign’s “Next” and its DNC running mate, “Doesn’t Add,” strike me as fairly clean, hard shots. “Next” makes the point that Bush has committed the same trillion dollars twice by dragging the image of a 1 with twelve zeros across the screen, from a young redhead to the white-haired old lady. “So what happens when Bush promises the same money to young workers and to seniors?” the announcer asks. “Answer: One promise gets broken. Next question: Which one?” Where the ad may mislead a bit is in the suggestion that people who are now the age of the old lady in the picture would be at risk from Bush’s proposal to fund individual accounts. In reality, it’s people retiring a decade or so hence who should worry about an incipient shortfall.

“Doesn’t Add” repeats the same charge about Social Security, adds assertions that Bush’s tax cut would favor the rich and that his overall economic plan “does not add up,” and draws in the authority of “eight Nobel laureates” to boot. There’s a minor sleight of hand in this one. The ad leaves the impression that the eight Nobel winners, represented by what look like giant worn pennies, made the specific charge about Bush spending the trillion dollars of Social Security money twice. In fact, the Oct.10 statement by 300 economists (including eight Nobel winners) organized by the lefty Economic Policy Institute did not make this claim. But the signatories probably would have made it if the Gore campaign had come up with this line of attack three weeks ago. It’s entirely in line with their views.

The second pair of Gore ads, “Word” and “Prosperity 2,” broadens the economic attack, making a more general argument that Bush is a hazard to our current prosperity. “Word,” the harsher ad, makes the charge directly. (“Bush has a tax plan that gives the fruits of that hard work to the richest 1 percent,” the narrator says.) “Prosperity 2” criticizes Bush’s recklessness implicitly. (“I think one of the most important things is not to take our strong economy for granted,” Gore himself says.) In my opinion, these are both lousy spots—not because they’re distorted, but because they don’t do a good job making what ought to be a slam-dunk case: that Gore would be better news for the American economy.

The reason that “Word” fails to make this case well is that it’s preoccupied with trying to pre-empt the other side’s blather. “From high unemployment and record deficits, the hard work of America’s middle class turned our economy around,” the ad begins. Why does Gore fob off credit for the longest economic expansion in American history in this way instead of taking a bow himself? Of the many factors that have contributed to the current boom, surely one of the most central is that the current administration—urged on by the vice president—mustered the political will to begin bringing down the deficit. But Gore doesn’t want to make this claim, for two reasons. The first is the superstition that prevents him from using the word “Clinton.” The second is that Gore is afraid of the rejoinder from Republicans that “government doesn’t cause prosperity, people do”—perhaps because it could revive the “exaggeration” issue.

But in trying to squelch this counterclaim, Gore simply adopts it himself, producing a nonsensical truism that isn’t even true. To be sure, “hard work” by individuals is essential to economic health in the way that oxygen is essential to life. But hard work by itself doesn’t bring about a healthy economy. Indeed, many people have to work even harder when the economy’s bad, as it was under the president before Clinton. And what’s the middle class got to do with it? Billionaire entrepreneurs and immigrants earning the minimum wage are just as essential to our country’s economic success. “Word” isn’t merely pandering to the middle class. It’s moronic pandering.

“Prosperity 2” also accepts Bush’s way of framing the economic debate in a way that undermines what should be a powerful case. Rather than tout the strength of the economy that he deserves some credit for, Gore in this spot suggests here that prosperity alone is not enough—it must have a higher purpose, to quote one of the other major party nominees. Gore describes this purpose as making sure that children breathe clean air, giving them “the best education anywhere in the world” and extending access to affordable health care. But there’s a problem here. Clean air, first-rate education, and universal access to health care are exactly the things that don’t flow automatically from a healthy economy like the one we have now. By bringing these issues up in this context, Gore is essentially devaluing his own economic accomplishment. Moreover, Gore’s words are accompanied by gauzy images and soothing flute music that give the ad a tranquilizing effect—exactly the opposite of what Gore needs to produce in the final stage of the campaign.

Finally, we come to the DNC’s new education spot, “Myth.” If Gore’s Social Security ads are both effective and fair, while his economy ads are fair but ineffectual, this one strikes me as both ineffective and unfair. It’s ineffective because the charge that Bush has been bad for education in Texas has no resonance. Education is practically the only issue the guy understands or cares about. And it’s unfair because it implies that the new Rand study shows that education in Texas is getting worse. In fact, as this “Ballot Box” column explains, the new Rand study makes only a much narrower case that the state’s accountability system is flawed. While education in Texas may not be a “miracle,” the best evidence suggests that it has improved under Bush in both relative and absolute terms. What’s more, the state has made gains by pursuing many of the policies that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman advocate. Were education in Texas getting worse, voting against Bush wouldn’t stop the problem from spreading.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

I don’t think the economic spots are so bad. The reason Gore doesn’t take a big bow for himself is that he has acquired—in part through his own efforts, and in part through a skillful, long-running Republican smear campaign—a reputation for claiming more credit than he deserves. Maybe he should have countered that campaign more effectively in word and deed over the past year. But he didn’t, and it’s too late to try now. So he does the next best thing. While agreeing that the people “turned our economy around,” Gore reminds viewers that the economy has gone from bad to very good—”from high unemployment and record deficits” to “record jobs and a record surplus”—and he inserts allusions to the Clinton-Gore policies that contributed to the current prosperity: “Keep on the right track with fiscal discipline,” and “keep investing in the things that are important for our future.”

There’s a sadly plaintive, almost bewildered quality to these commercials. Obviously, Gore is vexed that the good economy isn’t helping him. He has two problems: Many people don’t remember that the economy was bad, and now they think it’s so good that a new president from the other party can’t screw it up. So Gore goes back over these two points like a teacher whose class has failed to absorb the day’s lesson. In “Word,” he reminds the viewer of “high unemployment and record deficits.” In “Prosperity 2,” he pleads, “I think one of the most important things is not to take our strong economy for granted. … We’ve got to keep our prosperity going.” Gore’s chances of winning depend heavily on whether he can rattle enough voters with these two messages.

The remainder of Gore’s formula for victory is to link the theoretical fragility of the good economy to the practical consequences of Bush’s agenda. How would Bush’s election hit voters in the wallet? Gore has two answers. One is that Bush’s recklessness would force cuts in Social Security checks to seniors. Gore is wise to invest his late-stage ad money on this potent charge, which gives millions of reliable voters a material reason to go to the polls next Tuesday and pull the lever for Gore. The other answer, introduced in “Doesn’t Add,” is that “Bush’s promises more than exhaust the surplus, increasing interest rates and the deficit.” This argument is more sophisticated than the crude Social Security charge and is, for that ironic reason, less likely to be believed. Furthermore, it’s way too late for Gore to start explaining such a complicated chain of economic logic.

You ask why Gore panders to the middle class in his ads about the economy. The answer, I think, is that he has invested his campaign in a theme of class resentment. If, next Tuesday, this election is decided by “swing” or “undecided” voters, then Gore’s early and constant commitment to that theme will prove to be a mistake. But if the election is decided by relative turnout among traditional Republican and Democratic constituencies, then his commitment will prove to be wise. In either event, it’s too late for him to change course. Given his consistent emphasis on rewarding the “middle class” and “working families” rather than “the wealthy,” it makes perfect sense to channel his arguments about prosperity into a theme of class conflict. That’s why “Doesn’t Add” warns that Bush “uses the surplus on a tax cut promise, half going to those making over $300,000.”

“Word” strikes me as a particularly creative way of drawing the connection. Gore agrees with Bush up front that people, not politicians, “turned our economy around” through “hard work.” But those hard-working people, Gore argues, are the “middle class.” On this view, when Bush proposes to give the surplus back to the people, he’s not giving it to the people who earned it. He’s giving “the fruits of that hard work to the richest 1 percent.” By rejecting Bush’s tax cut and instead giving “tax cuts directly to the middle class, while strengthening Social Security, Medicare, [and] improving education,” Gore is “standing up for the people who turned the economy around.” In this way, Gore turns Bush’s argument about the surplus on its head: It’s your recovery, it’s your money, and Bush is trying to give it to somebody else.

I agree with you about Gore’s clumsy attempt in “Prosperity 2” to combine gratitude for economic progress with dissatisfaction about the condition of education, health care, and the environment. The underlying problem is that Gore has never found a simple, overarching theme the way Bush has. Bush’s theme, tying together his messages on Social Security, taxes, and limited government, is “trust.” What is Gore’s theme? There ain’t one. So once again Gore recites his oxymoronic laundry list of first priorities: clean air, good schools, affordable health care. Before I saw this ad, I couldn’t explain to anyone what, in a sentence, would be the central principle of a Gore presidency. After seeing this ad, I still can’t.

I do think Gore has made one smart overarching decision in all these ads, however. He has aimed them at Bush’s credibility. The numbers Gore throws around about Social Security and taxes—”a trillion dollars from Social Security,” “more than exhaust the projected surplus,” “half going to those making over $300,000,”—are confusing and hard for the average person to follow, much less to accept at face value. But in the campaign’s final month, Gore has learned to package these mathematical flaws and discrepancies as a matter of character. It’s not just that Bush’s plans don’t “add up.” It’s that his “promises” can’t be squared. As “Next” puts it, “What happens when Bush promises the same money to young workers and to seniors? Answer: One promise gets broken.” “Doesn’t Add” repeats this formula: “Bush promises the same $1 trillion of Social Security to younger workers and the elderly.” After seven months of running as the candidate of substance against the candidate of trustworthiness, Gore has finally figured out how to convert Bush’s substance problem into a trustworthiness problem.

In that spirit, “Myth” makes perfect sense. I agree with you that on the merits and on the direct politics of the education issue, this ad won’t hurt Bush much. So test scores in Texas haven’t improved quite as much as we thought? Big deal. But on the larger question, “Myth” combines with “Next” and “Doesn’t Add” to raise doubts about Bush’s credibility. On Social Security, Bush is making irreconcilable promises. And on education, he’s peddling a “myth.” It’s no accident that this is the title and last word of Gore’s education ad—or that the ad opens with a clip of Bush claiming that the Rand Corp.’s study validates the improvement in Texas schools. Gore isn’t just arguing that Bush would screw up education or Social Security. He’s suggesting that Bush can’t be believed. If Gore can plant that worry in the minds of enough people, he’ll cripple Bush’s chief asset and win the title to which this election has been reduced: lesser of two evils.