Politics

The Most Incomprehensibly Thrilling Ad of the 2020 Election So Far

Ed Markey is borrowing from AOC in an ad that also drips with American nostalgia.

Ed Markey, wearing a mask, standing in front of the Capitol with the text "The Green New Dealmaker."
A still from Ed Markey’s ad. Ed Markey for Senate

At almost 3 minutes long, Ed Markey’s “Dealmaker” ad lasts an eternity by online standards. But it’s stuffed with good hooks—“there’s an invisible contract we all signed at birth,” it begins, introducing the idea (threadbare and moth-eaten these days) that citizens deserve to expect things from their government. Their own efforts and labor ought to form part of “a promise: Every hour we work means longer days of freedom and security.” The ad fills each subsequent second oddly, but well enough that I kept watching, curious to see what it would do next. So hilariously overconfident it’s reassuring, the Dealmaker ad is also sweeping and cheesy and epic enough that my colleague Susan Matthews pondered whether “rock and roll cool” was back.

Like Joe Biden’s campaign, it uses the candidate’s old image to burnish his present candidacy with American nostalgia that shouldn’t work. It’s tempting to compare this appeal to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, but what’s striking about MAGA is how resolutely it rejects American glamour. The America Trump hearkens back to is racist, suburban, and—judging from recent exemplars—populated chiefly with soft, stout men with guns they don’t know how to hold and murderous trucks they only sort of know how to drive. That leaves some of the cheesier aspects of old Americana unmined: Biden can ride Amtrak and drive cool old cars in sunglasses, while Markey can brag about his union leader milkman dad and tap into a desire for old-school style and flash.

But Markey’s ad shares even more DNA with AOC’s political image than it does with the Men in Black masculinity the former vice president occasionally favors. There is no way to see that clip of Markey walking the streets of his district in sneakers without thinking of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her worn-out shoes. It’s strange to recognize—in an ad dripping with macho swagger as it grapples with the challenges of an elderly incumbent—the spry and shady stylings of the House’s savviest member. It’s weird to realize that an old white man and a young woman of color are rooting their viability in strikingly similar stories. But they do: AOC’s gift is making politics seem not just accessible but worthy and hopeful and fun, and that’s exactly the tone Markey strikes. If most political ads reference our cataclysmic conditions by offering bleakly remedial to-do lists filled with projects this country cannot manage, Markey’s ad bulges with storytelling verve that embeds Markey in history, makes that history seem cool and relevant, marks his achievements, and then tethers them to the present. It even narrates our current political wreckage as hopeful; the “essential people” protesting on the streets are responding to the violation of the aforementioned American contract and working to make it true. I found it gratifying to see Black Lives Matter marches filmed the way civil rights marches were—with the chants of protesters framed as noble, the sound of their cries echoing with the righteousness we typically grant movements only in retrospect.

What saves this from pomposity is sass. Markey’s opponent in the primary is Joe Kennedy III, so there’s a pleasantly savage edge to the continual repurposing of John F. Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” speech. Variations of this burn recur throughout the ad. The first instance targets Trump: “When crisis hit, Trump’s government abandoned America. We asked what we could do for our country. They looked for what they could take.” But the second targets the Kennedys, and an idea of service to country that has for too long gone unreciprocated: “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out. We did it,” Markey says, toward the end. And then he attacks Kennedy’s whole political philosophy head-on: “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”

The ad—which is largely about political potency, about things accomplished and fishermen saved—couldn’t have hit at a more opportune time. On Thursday, when it dropped, the phrase “DO SOMETHING” was trending on Twitter in panicked response to the Trump administration’s ongoing sabotage of the United States Postal Service. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was calling for the postmaster general to be investigated by the USPS Office of Inspector General for corruption, given his purchase of Amazon stock options after his appointment, but the Senate was also breaking for an incomprehensible weekslong recess. The president admitted he wanted to deny the post office funding in order to stop Americans from voting by mail, but the House of Representatives stayed on vacation. As footage circulated of post office boxes being removed in Oregon and perfectly functional mail-sorting machines—including ones that are used to sort ballots—being taken out of post office facilities for no discernible reason, no one seemed to be doing anything to stop it. And this was only the latest crisis. The pandemic rages on, but it seems Washington will be empty until September, with no deal in place to help desperate Americans.

Against that portrait of flabbergasting inaction, there was real pleasure in seeing all this wonderfully silly footage of Markey, doing something. There’s nothing particularly new in a politician presenting themselves as a rule-breaker and deal-maker. Trump tries to do this all the time. But after 3½ years of empty bravado, it’s kind of nice to see the affect adopted by a guy who actually passed the laws and did the thing—and who still manages to talk in ideals that include rather than despise the people he’s supposed to govern.

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