Thursday, March 18, 2004

Tough Sell

Slate’s William Saletan and Jacob Weisberg take a look at the air war between Bush and Kerry. Saletan notes,

Bush’s new ads, “Forward” and “100 Days,” reinforce the pattern we saw in his first three ads. Namely, this is a president who thinks good intentions are more important than good results, except where the other guy’s good intentions are concerned.

“Forward” delivers the positive half of the message. It starts with Bush’s reassuring twinkle as he tells us everything will be OK. “We can go forward with confidence, resolve, and hope,” he says, as we see a girl bounding happily toward the horizon of a landscape that appears to be the Windows XP default desktop background. Lest anyone miss the key words, they follow the girl on the screen: “Confidence. Resolve. Hope.” Why these words? Because they require no evidence. You can resolve to make things better, hope that they will get better, and have confidence that they will get better, even when things aren’t getting better. In fact, confidence, resolve, and hope are precisely what a president has to ask you for when he has nothing tangible to show you.


Bush carries the good-intentions theme into his attack ad, “100 Days.” The ad describes the Patriot Act as a law “used to arrest terrorists and protect America.” The act’s failure to produce verifiable results in this endeavor doesn’t matter. The important thing is that this is what it’s “used” for. But when it comes to Kerry, good intentions become irrelevant. “John Kerry’s plan: To pay for new government spending, raise taxes by at least $900 billion,” says the ad’s female announcer. On the screen, the words “John Kerry’s Plan” appear alongside the words, “Taxes Increase at Least $900 Billion.”

Now, we could have an honest debate about whether Kerry’s health insurance proposal will cost $900 billion. But that isn’t what the ad says. It says raising taxes by at least $900 billion is Kerry’s “plan.” And that’s a flat-out lie. Kerry has lots of ways to avoid raising taxes. He could, for example, simply add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit, as Bush has done. That would be a lousy result, not a plan. But it’s hard to make Kerry’s hypothetical results look worse than Bush’s real ones.


Kerry’s response ad, “Misleading America,” is less dishonest than Bush’s ads but just as vapid in its avoidance of policy consequences. “John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion dollar tax increase,” says the male announcer as the screen displays headlines backing him up. “He wants to cut taxes for the middle class.” Again, notice the wishful language. Of course Kerry hasn’t “called for” a trillion-dollar tax hike. Of course he “wants” to cut middle-class taxes. Tax hikes happen despite what politicians “want” and “call for.” What does Kerry have to say about the cost of his health insurance proposal and how he’s going to pay for it? Nothing. His message to Bush is: If you want to make good intentions and extravagant promises the centerpiece of this campaign, bring it on.

Weisberg replies,

You’ve pointed out the main deceptions in these ads. Bush’s are way worse than Kerry’s. As you say, it’s not merely misleading, but an outright lie for the president to assert that Kerry wants to “raise taxes by at least $900 billion,” for the simple reason that Kerry hasn’t made that proposal. (If spending money implies finding revenue to cover it, then Bush wants to raise taxes by $900 billion, too.) It’s an even balder lie to say Kerry didn’t want to “defend America” because he supported asking for U.N. approval before the Iraq war. Leaving aside the larger question of whether invading Iraq had anything to do with defending America, Kerry actually voted to give Bush the power to go to war unilaterally, whether or not the United Nations agreed.

Kerry’s ad, by contrast, is merely misleading. How can Kerry cut taxes for the middle class, pass a big new health care bill, and reduce the deficit? He can’t, of course. He’ll have to choose among these goals, just as Bill Clinton did after winning office on a similar triad in 1993. But that doesn’t mean Kerry is fibbing by saying he wants to do all three things. He’s just being, shall we say, a tad unrealistic.


Of course, elections are not zero-sum games. So if both sides stay negative for the next eight months, who suffers more? Generally speaking, negativity is thought to turn voters off and thereby reduce turnout. One might assume that a low-turnout election would help the GOP, since Republicans start from a slightly larger threshold of support. But I’m not sure that assumption will hold true this time. Bush’s lies on television could fuel an already angry Democratic base. And if Bush is sufficiently hated, Kerry may not have to be loved.

I don’t envy the copywriters at the Bush-Cheney ’04 ad agency. As they say in Texas, you can’t polish a turd.