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Mad scientists and bad political ads

While its incompetence in all matters foreign and domestic at last seems well-understood, the Bush team still seems to retain some reputation for political brilliance. This has seemed to me a bubble waiting to be burst --a political consultant convinced of his own genius is always dangerous. And Karl Rove really is beginning to seem a kind of mad scientist, enraged by his inabillity to reproduce his experiment, frantically throwing in more of the chemicals that worked before, until it all blows up. (Yes, I did see Spiderman 2.)

I just looked at all of the last few Bush ads, and they are really evidence of what happens to a political campaign when it is driven by smug arrogance and sense of historical inevitability, and lacks a candidate who can step in and take control, as Kerry did last fall. These ads may well be the worst political ads of all time. That's entirely apart from the question of their truthfulness or civility. And I don't just mean the ad that inserts images of Hitler in between those of other Democrats criticizing Bush, although I'll get to that. These ads all aggressively fail the most basic test of any political ad: What do you hear when you're watching it out of the corner of an eye, doing dishes, talking on the phone, trying to stop one kid from taking the other one's Power Rangers, etc. I look at the "Yakuza" ad that way and all I hear is "Kerry had a plan to fight terrorism [blah, blah, some Japanese thing I never heard of, blah blah], "plan to fight crime [blah, blah]". OK, sounds good, Kerry's against terrorism and crime. I watch the ad called "Patriot Act" like that, and the only thing I notice is the middle frames: "Wire Taps" [Clang!] "Subpoena powers" [Clang!] "Surveillance" [Clang!] Bad things, scary mean government. But the point of the ad is supposed to be that those are good things, and Kerry is against them, except he sort of isn't ... Getting the point of this ad requires a logic even more nuanced than Kerry's own position, which begins to seem quite reasonable.

The otherwise banal ad called "Pessimism," ends with the narrator, in a treacly, grandpa-knows-best tone reminding us "One thing's sure: Pessimism never created a job." Listen for yourself: it sounds condescending and offensive to my ears and probably would to anyone who's had some anxiety about their economic circumstances over the past few years, which means everybody except the top 5%. The idea of optimism is a powerful political tool -- it was John Edwards' original theme -- but this ad gets the tone all wrong. It keeps saying the words "optimism" and "pessimism" instead of showing it. And it's far too exuberant in its images of people skipping down the street to spend their new home equity loan for the current national mood, which is certainly not yet "Morning in America."

Finally, there's the Hitler ad, which has been commented on at length. Although this was not broadcast but e-mailed to 6 million supporters, it remained on the Bush site for quite a while and also got plenty of the free media which it was designed to provoke. I have been enjoying browsing through the political ads of the last 50 years online through the American Museum of the Moving Image, and haven't found anything this bizarre yet. It's not clear what the point is -- that the liberals are so crazy that they compare Bush to Hitler, which doesn't make sense as an explanation because the ad doesn't say that and they had to be browbeaten into adding an explanatory comment that might help a viewer who didn't know about the phony MoveOn ad story. Or, more likely to be the underlying message of the ad is that Bush opponents Kerry, Dean, Gore and Michael Moore are similar to Hitler in that they are all wild-eyed extremists, although from different extremes, while Bush represents the responsible middle: "steady leadership," the ad says. But if that's the point, why on earth would you use an image of Hitler? Hitler stands apart, he doesn't fit neatly into a political argument. Michael Moore looks a little crazy raging against Bush to boos at the Oscars, but that has nothing to with Hitler at Nurenberg, and bringing Hitler into it torpedoes whatever argument you were trying to make. That's why it was a lousy entry into the MoveOn.org contest that the images are taken from, and is no more effective when repurposed.

But what really strikes me about this ad, and the others, is that Bush seems to believe he can now present himself as the calm, centrist, steady point right in between the wild-eyed left and right. (Perhaps only Hitler puts enough weight on the other side to make Bush seem calm and centrist.) He must realize that he made a choice at some point in his presidency to put large forces into play. He didn't have to cast politcal arguments into grand battles between the forces of light and the forces of dark. He didn't have to stake everything on radical tax shifting and foreign policy insanity. The central argument of E. J. Dionne's superb new book, Stand Up, Fight Back, (although I have also heard it referred to as "E.J. Unleashed) is that Bush had two chances to govern in a way that would have unified the electorate and assured him support, if begrudging, across a broad swathe of the electorate -- after the Supreme Court made him president and after Sept. 11 -- and both he aggressively rejected. I think that's it in a nutshell, and probably how history will see this second one-term Bush presidency. But part of the problem is that Bush doesn't seem to have any idea that he has done this. He's just picking up where he left off in the 2000 campaign. But you have to recognize that when you stake your supporters to the cause of stopping gay marriage, when you stake the economy to a gamble on surviving massive deficits, when you stake your reputation as an international leader on a "you break it, you own it" invasion of a country, thoroughly unprepared for either the predicted or unpredictable consequences, you just have to hope that all those dice roll in your favor. If they do, you win "big time." If not, you lose. Bush has no option in his reelection message but to try to reinforce and justify the choice he's made to go the extremes. Thus the policy incompetence cannot be separated from the political incompetence.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 3, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Mark,

Hubris always summons nemesis. There is sort of a sick fascination in watching the Rove machine come apart. I also expect to see a major Bush tantrum before Nov. 2.

Posted by: Melanie | Jul 3, 2004 2:06:45 PM

Very nice piece. I quote from it in The Bush Presidency as Tragedy.

You may be interested in my comments (Fantasies, The First Amendment, and Self-Awareness) on the forthcoming Baker novella and how it offers an opportunity to reflect on the lack of self-awareness in the Bush administration.

Posted by: Russ Abbott | Jul 4, 2004 12:02:31 PM

What bad economy? Who the hell is John Kerry.. I've been reading all over this site and I still don't know.

Posted by: | Jul 5, 2004 3:08:33 AM

"...lacks a candidate who can step in and take control, as Kerry did last fall..."

What is it exactly that Kerry did that has shown leadership other than to rail against the improving economy, the troops, and anything George Bush has done?

The "Hitler" ad as you call it is precisely why George Bush will be re-elected. The vitriol which Democrats have been spewing turns off moderate voters, it does not energize them. The party has been hijacked by people who still feel George Bush is in his office illegitimately, who feed off of conspiracy theories, and who think they would have had a better plan for the war at every turn.

I am part of that large voting bloc this November--the Disgusted Democrats--praying that in 2008 the party will return to its true heritage and principles, but admiring of George Bush and the job he has done leading this country, and solidly behind his good work.

Posted by: Christopher Russo | Jul 6, 2004 7:41:46 AM

Russo,

1) I seriously doubt you're a registered Democrat.
2) Even if you actually are a Democrat, the notion that there is a "large voting bloc" of disgusted Democrats who will vote for Bush is borderline absurd, unless you consider its "true heritage" to be the party of racial segregation, which thankfully the Dems abandoned (and the GOP absorbed) in the 60s. North of the Mason-Dixon line I would wager that the number of registered Dems that vote for Bush will be quite small.
3) What, pray tell, is Bush's "good work"? Name one thing that Bush has done well (besides unite Democrats).

Bush/Cheney and the radical right have been thoroughly destructive on all fronts, though the irony of course is that their extremism has paved the way for the re-birth of the Democratic Party that will be led by Kerry/Edwards.

Posted by: Bragan | Jul 6, 2004 10:13:12 AM

I am a registered Independent, but only because it allows me to vote in either primary here in Massachusetts.

What disgusts me--and many others you will see--is the constant negativity and pessimism which has hijacked the Democratic party. It may be hip to say, "Anybody but Bush," to call him incompetent and an idiot and evil, but that unites among ideologues only, not with the common person.

Bush and Cheney highlights:
1) Removing Saddam Hussein from power and bringing a fledgling democracy to Iraq, and paving the way for the Middle East to be reshaped into an area of stability and peace.

2) Bringing the fight against terrorism to the national and international forefront.

3) Weathering the economic downturn and presiding over the recovery we are now experiencing.

4) Medicare Drug Discount cards (enough said)

5) NCLB

6) He is a man of conviction and with bold, visionary leadership in the mold of Reagan. That is something the hard left doesn't understand. The outpouring of love at Reagan's passing took the hard left by surprise--but that is how history will look on President Bush. When everyone talked about how to co-exist in a world with Communism, it was President Reagan who stood up and said it must be defeated. When everyone talks about the Middle East and terrorism and how we are breeding more of it by our intervention and we should stay away, President Bush has the moral clarity to stand up and say we won't stand by while the people in that region continue to be oppressed, and threaten our national interests, to boot.

Posted by: Christopher Russo | Jul 6, 2004 10:44:31 AM

Regarding those "highlights", Russo:

1) We'll never really know the cost, particularly the current and likely future human cost, of removing Hussein from power in the deceitful and arrogant way that Bush/Cheney did, but I increasingly I think people recognize that the cost will exceed the benefit. The puppet government in Iraq can't even be rightly called a fledgeling democracy given that no election has been held. Creating instability in Iraq and enraging the greater Arab populace is a rather counterintuitive way to bring "stability and peace" to the Middle East.

2) Thanks in part to the inattention of Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft, Al Qaeda brought terrorism to the forefront. The Bush/Cheney reaction has been terribly misguided, making America less free and diverting resources from fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere to engage in their Iraq debacle.

3) "Weathering the economic downturn"? More like exacerbating it by channeling resouces to the people who needed the least help and by putting America's future in fiscal jeopardy.

4) Medicare prescription cards? No wonder you leave it at "enough said." That monstrosity, for which the Bush administration suppressed estimates of the real cost, and passed only after hours of arm twisting, is now strongly criticized from both sides of the aisle and from non-partisan sources as well. It's an atrocious piece of policy.

5) NCLB -- Nice in principal, terrible in execution. Underfunded and misguided. Testing and standards should be a small piece of the solution, not the only piece.

Posted by: Bragan | Jul 6, 2004 12:20:53 PM

Bush is such a Nincompoop!

Posted by: John | Jul 27, 2004 12:48:24 PM