Getting Naked

What a frankly political campaign ad might look like.

Bill Bradley with Willie Williams. Click image to expand.
Tom Bradley with Willie Williams

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away—OK, it was California in 1973—I was working with famed political media wizard Dave Garth on Tom Bradley’s campaign to become the first black mayor of Los Angeles. A former police officer and a city councilman, Bradley was the antithesis of the black activist stereotype. Still, voters’ apprehension about a black mayor was clear; it was, in fact, why he had lost his first run for the job in 1969.

So Garth and I decided to produce a TV ad that went straight at such fears. “The last time I ran for mayor, I lost,” Bradley said, straight into the camera. “Maybe some of you worried that I’d favor one group over another. In the first place, I couldn’t win that way; Los Angeles has the smallest black population of any big city in America.” The rest of the commercial went on to say that he wouldn’t want to win by appealing to racial sentiments, and he offered calming words about different groups working together. But the heart of the ad was its first message: I understand your fears, and it would not serve me politically to stoke them

What made this so unusual was that it flew smack in the face of one of the central tenets of political ad-making: Thou Shalt Not Speak Directly of Politics, because this is inside baseball and voters don’t like it. In the words of Professor Dennis Johnson of George Washington University, “Political consultants, particularly media types, aren’t comfortable having their candidates make the flat-out, blatant pitch, ‘vote for me.’ It doesn’t work too well on television.”

But maybe, in a time when the intricacies of political strategy are debated endlessly on broadcast TV, cable, and the Web, this venerable belief needs rethinking—especially since electability has been very much on the minds of voters in recent campaigns. (It was, for example, one key reason why John Kerry’s Iowa victory led to a virtually unimpeded march to the 2004 Democratic nomination.) Voters may say they do not like nakedly political appeals, but they also say they do not like negative campaigns, and that they want to watch more documentaries and high-minded dramas on TV, and want to eat more vegetables and exercise more strenuously. Campaigns that heed these ostensible preferences may find, as John Kerry’s did last time around after a convention scrupulously purged of “negative” comments about President Bush, that they have made a serious miscalculation.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

So … what would a blatantly political campaign ad look like? I’ve chosen to confine my efforts at answering that question to the Democratic nomination, principally because the Republican candidates have deep divisions among themselves on matters of policy. Democratic voters, by contrast, are facing candidates whose ideological divisions are relatively narrow, which leaves them looking for other ways to distinguish themselves from each other.

John Edwards’ departure from the race this week deprives us of a pitch that would begin with misdirection:

I’m John Edwards. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s something different about me. Of course, I’m talking about geography.Here’s an unavoidable political fact: Since the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the onlyDemocratic presidential candidates who have won a clear plurality of popular votes have come from the South or the border states—the Red States. Our only victors have come from Georgia and Arkansas (and Tennessee, if you count the victory they stole).All of us—Sen. Obama, Sen. Clinton, and myself—will fight for health care, a fairer tax system, a chance for those who haven’t gotten a chance to live out the American promise. But if we don’t choose a candidate who can compete everywhere, we will never get the chance to do any of these things. Choose me … or lose.

Sen. Clinton has an even blunter pitch to make, by openly embracing rough-and-tumble tactics. She could do that with the help of prominent supporters, starting with Charlie Rangel, the chairman of the House ways and means committee:

I’m Charlie Rangel. I’ve been in Congress for 35 years. I guess that makes me a politician. I’ve seen a lot of good ideas die in this town—because the folks who thought them up didn’t know how to fight for them … didn’t know how to face down the people who stood in the way.  But then Bill and Hillary Clinton came to town, and their enemies hit them with everything they had, and you know what? They stood—and fought—and won more than their share of those fights. So, we got family and medical leave … and the Earned Income Tax Credit … and the first jump in real income for average workers in more than 20 years.  Now Sen. Clinton is running for president. More than any candidate ever, she knows what she’s up against, she knows how tough the fight will be. And she knows how to win. Politics is a contact sport—maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. And if we Democrats want to do the things this country needs, we damn well better pick a candidate who gives as good as she gets—and more.

Good one. But for me, the most intriguing possibility lies with the Obama campaign. Sen. Obama has won support from a remarkable number of Red State Democrats. Currently, these politicians—Gov. Kathy Sebelius of Kansas, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona—are on the air in their home states, with more or less conventional pitches. The ad I imagine features them and other Red State Democrats in ads aimed at the Blue States with Super Tuesday primaries—California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts.

It would go something like this:

—I’m Janet Napolitano, Democratic governor of Arizona—a state Bush won twice.—I’m Kathleen Sebelius, Democratic governor of Kansas—a state Bush won twice.—I’m Claire McKaskill, Democratic Senator from Missouri—a state Bush won twice.If Al Gore had won any of our states in 2000, there never would have been a Bush presidency. Instead, Democrats lost the last two presidential elections because our candidates couldn’t compete in our states, and too many others.Any Democrat can win in your deep blue state. But to win the White House, we need someone who can win our states, too. We believe that candidate is Barack Obama.—We think so, too. I’m Tim Kaine, governor of Virgnia, where Bush won twice. And I’m Ben Nelson, Democratic senator from Nebraska, where Bush won twice.Please: Give us a Democratic candidate who can win the states that will decide who wins the White House. Give us Barack Obama.

I know full well that it’s way easier to suggest ads from the safety of the sidelines; and the campaigns may have good reason for declining. But in a campaign that has stirred more interest in politics than any in memory, maybe it’s time for the practitioners to make ads that are about just that.