Damned Spot

Accurate Theory

Kerry finally grasps what Bush doesn’t: reality.

The following five ads were produced for the Kerry campaign by Shrum, Devine, Donilon. To watch or read the script of “You Saw” on the Kerry campaign Web site, click here. For “Reasons,” click here. For “Right Track,” click here. For “Different Story,” click here. For “Doesn’t Get It,” click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

Jake, I want to pick up on two things you said in our exchange last week. You observed that Bush’s ads about Kerry’s flip-flops were sticking “because these ads pick up on something recognizable” in Kerry, i.e., they were “grounded in reality.” You also argued that “by not settling on a single angle [of attack] the way his opponent has, Kerry has not only failed to foster a negative image of Bush. He’s reinforced his own image as a politician who can’t decide which way to go.”

You were right on both points. And I think Kerry is now recovering precisely because he’s beginning to understand and act on them. His (and John Edwards’) ads, speeches, and debate performances are coalescing around a single angle of attack that plays on something very recognizable in Bush: his unwillingness to face facts. To put it another way, the argument that Bush isn’t grounded in reality is very much grounded in reality.

The latest of Kerry’s ads along this line, “You Saw,” began airing yesterday. It says that “you’ve seen” Kerry pledge clearly to protect America, that “you’ve seen” Cheney fudge the truth about Iraq and Halliburton, and that “you’ve seen the Bush-Cheney failures” on Iraq, the economy, the deficit, health care, and gas prices. The ad doesn’t show Kerry or Cheney in the debates; it shows the faces of people watching these debates on television. The most obvious reason for this is that the campaigns agreed not to use images from the debates in their commercials. But I think there’s another reason, underscored by the ad’s title: By the time the ad was cut, Kerry knew that 62 million Americans had watched the debate. That made it possible for him to tell voters, essentially, “You saw me with your own eyes—so when Bush tells you I’m something else, you know his spin doesn’t match reality.” In courtroom parlance, Kerry is calling the jury—the voters—as eyewitnesses.

Reasons” pits Bush’s prewar claims about Iraq against the realities unearthed by the 9/11 commission and Bush’s weapons inspectors. As the male narrator recites Bush’s rationales for the war—weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida—a woman’s voice decisively interjects, “Not true.” The screen shows a headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Bush and Iraq; Invasion Rationales Wither as Facts Unfold.” The narrator scoffs, “One reason after another—a new one offered every time the facts crumble.”

Three more Kerry ads apply the reality test to Bush’s postwar claims. “Right Track” shows Bush chirping dismissively that “the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America.” (What was that again about not governing by polls?) The narrator responds, incredulously, “The right track? Americans are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded. Over a thousand American soldiers have died.” The next ad, “Different Story,” is more explicit: “George Bush keeps telling us things are getting better in Iraq. The facts tell a different story. Terrorists are pouring into the country. Attacks on U.S. forces are increasing every month. A thousand American soldiers have died.”

My favorite of these spots is “Doesn’t Get It.” It begins with a photo of Bush declaring victory in Iraq 17 months ago. The now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner hangs behind him. “George Bush said Iraq was ‘mission accomplished,’ ” the narrator begins. Bush never uttered those words, but the next image shows him appearing last week on Bill O’Reilly’s television show. In that interview, O’Reilly asked: “The ‘mission accomplished’ statement in May 2003—if you had to do it all over again, would you not have done it?” Bush said he would. The ad concludes: “Sixteen months later, he still doesn’t get it. Today, over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans. Still Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq.  How can you solve a problem when you can’t see it?”

This really is Bush’s essential flaw: not that he lies or flip-flops or serves the rich—I don’t think any of those charges are true—but that he doesn’t get it. He believes what he wants to believe and refuses to recognize emerging realities that challenge these beliefs. He couldn’t see that radical changes in the economy and in the budget outlook between 1999 and 2001 made his backloaded tax cuts unwise. He couldn’t see warnings in his intelligence briefings that the evidence of Saddam’s WMD was iffy. He can’t see the magnitude of the postwar mess in Iraq. He can’t fix problems—hell, he’s worsening problems—because he can’t see them.

I’ve been pleading for this message all year, so I’m relieved to see it take center stage. For months, Bush has hammered Kerry’s fundamental weakness, but Kerry has missed Bush’s. Voters were hearing only one side of the story. Now they’re hearing both.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

Will, I agree with you about everything except the ads. You’re reading your own lucidity into them. Unfortunately, they don’t reflect anything like the kind of message clarity you’ve been hoping for.

We’re on the same page about what Kerry’s anti-Bush message should be. The theme that Bush is out of touch with reality is the Democrats’ strongest line of attack for several reasons. For one thing, it happens to be true. You saw in the first debate how cocooned Bush was, protected by his chamberlains from negative facts and criticism. For another, this charge cleverly skirts such delicate issues as whether Bush is a liar or a nincompoop. If the president is simply out of touch with reality, voters shouldn’t want him for a second term regardless of whether they identify with him personally or admire his moral bearing. You get the same result without the off-putting harshness. This critique also wraps into a neat political package Bush’s failures on a lot of seemingly unconnected issues, like Iraq and the budget deficit—just as Bush’s charge about Kerry’s “Windsurfing” does. That’s why I thought Kerry’s Sept. 16 blast that Bush was “living in a fantasy world of spin” was his single best shot to date.

But Kerry has not, to my knowledge, repeated that line in the three weeks since. And while the theme of Bush’s being detached from reality is present in these ads, it’s overpowered by the presence of too many other ideas and arguments. All five of these commercials are stuffed like Christmas stockings. I’ve watched them repeatedly now, but if you hadn’t told me in advance what you thought their common theme was, I don’t think I would have been able to guess it. I might have said something like, “Bush’s screw-ups in Iraq”—which is not just a different point, but a different kind of point.

The clearest expression of the earth-to-president complaint comes in the ad you say is your favorite, “Doesn’t Get It.” This is that spot that begins with the “Mission Accomplished” banner and responds with a wicked slam at Bush’s leadership in general: “How can you solve a problem when you can’t see it?” That, too, would be a great slogan for Kerry and his surrogates to repeat ad nauseam (they won’t). But the whole second part of this ad focuses on something else: the notion that Bush has no plan for fixing Iraq, while Kerry does. To me, Kerry’s “plan”—elections, Iraqification of the war, getting allies to help more—doesn’t sound so different from Bush’s current policy. It’s a convention for ads like this to move from negative to positive. But here Kerry’s much mealier positive argument blunts the stronger, negative swipe in the first part of the ad.

And it’s downhill from there. Take the most recent of these spots, “You Saw,” which was released on Oct. 6. The novelty of this ad is its rhetorical cast. Instead of trying to persuade, the ad asserts that you, the viewer, are already persuaded. “You’ve seen Dick Cheney not tell the truth on Iraq and on his financial connections to Halliburton,” the narrator declares, describing the vice presidential debate. Some viewers may want to respond, “No, I didn’t see that—I was watching the baseball game.” Insisting that others must agree with you may be a novel technique, but it seems overbearing to me. I was on a criminal jury recently and felt similarly resentful when the lawyers told me in their summations what I’d seen and heard from the witnesses. Even where I agreed with them, it felt hectoring.

But the real problem with this spot, as with the others, is that it’s an overfilled suitcase. “But when it comes to Iraq, the economy, the deficit, health care costs, gas prices, and more, you’ve seen the Bush-Cheney failures for yourself.” You can hear the haste in the narrator’s voice as he attempts a mad dash through all of these issues in just a few seconds of airtime. Will, this ad is a hedgehog run amok. It tells you many small things about what Bush has done wrong. But it neglects to hammer home the one big thing: Bush’s early retirement to la-la land.

“Reasons” is yet another case in point. Displaying multiplying images of the president, it notes that Bush has repeatedly changed his rationale for going to war. It also notes that Bush’s chief arguments—weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam and al-Qaida—were “not true.” It also notes that things in Iraq are going very badly with “Americans being held hostage, kidnapped, even beheaded.” It also notes that Bush doesn’t have a plan to fix Iraq. Each of these criticisms of Bush’s Iraq policy—contradiction, deceit, failure, the lack of a future policy—could have some bite if isolated, played up, and hammered home. But the litany is more than the poor TV-watching brain can absorb in 30 seconds. Meanwhile, the stronger, unifying point emphasized in “Doesn’t Get It” has gone missing.

Kerry is now making the point you’ve been agitating for, Will. But he still isn’t saying it strongly or clearly enough—in these ads or elsewhere.