September 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Talent and McCaskill's latest ads: OMFGWTFBBQ?

I've spent more than 40 years of my life studying politics, including 4 years as a teenager studying under one of the architects of the Reagan Revolution. I've worked for real campaigns. So I'd like to think that, when a political campaign does something, I can reconstruct what it was they were thinking. I frequently disagree with their ideas, and from time to time disagree with their strategic planning, but most of the time when a politician does something, or their campaign does something, I feel like I can probably tell you why they did it. That's even more true when it's professionals, people who've worked on a lot of campaigns, in a high profile nationally watched race, where everything is scrutinized to within an inch of its life and each version test-polled, polished until it gleams.

So it disturbs me on a deep level that last week's TV ads for both Jim Talent's re-election campaign and Claire McCaskill's campaign for that same seat seemed so stupidly counter-productive, so hurtful to their own candidates, that I am at a complete loss as to what the heck the people who made those ads thought they were trying to achieve. This isn't amateur hour here. Jim Talent's not just any incumbent, he's the protege of one of Missouri's longest-serving, most consumately skilled, and most unspeakably dangerous to the safety of the country politicians of all time, John Ashcroft. Claire McCaskill isn't just any former senator seeking a rematch, she's from a family of 3rd generation politicians with a rolodex you wouldn't believe. And this isn't just any race; this is one of the tightest and most important races in the 2006 election. A few weeks ago, in a column for the New York Times that I wish I'd saved, George Will called this the race to watch this November; he said that Missouri is such a bellwether state and so perfectly encapsulates the whole country's politics in miniature that you really can tell how the country is going to go by watching this year's US senate race between Talent and McCaskill. The two parties agree on this, too. Saving Talent's job despite Bush's unpopularity is very high on the Republican National Party's agenda, so they've been holding fund raisers for him and throwing money and manpower at his campaign since long before the campaign season even vaguely began. And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's been doing almost as much for McCaskill.

So with the stakes this high, why on God's green earth would Jim Talent drop two of the most brilliantly effective political ads I've ever seen in my life for the clunker they released this week? Jim Talent started running ads long before McCaskill did. He can afford to; thanks to fund raisers with President Bush, he's drowning in cash compared to her. And his first ad sent my blood pressure through the roof, because it was such a lie. In it, Jim Talent paints himself over and over again as a man who transcends partisan politics, who works equally well with both Republicans and Democrats to get things done. It included a long list of bills that Talent had voted for ... most of which got fewer Democratic votes in the Senate than you could fit into a Ford Focus. Of course bills he voted for passed; that's what being in the majority party in both houses means. But since when has being more or less dishonest ever hurt a candidate, as long as you're even vaguely subtle about it? And it painted him in exactly the right light to win: Republican enough to carry the "guns, god, and gays" south half of the state, pragmatist enough to carry the big-city suburbs. He followed that ad up with one that was almost as good, that showed him with rolled-up sleeves, with stacks and stacks and stacks of printouts of the bills he's voted for, and painted him as the hardest working guy in the history of the Senate ... and that one's not entirely unfair. These were great ads, ads good enough to really scare me that the McCaskill campaign didn't have anything at all yet when he was running them, let alone anything as good.

So what did he follow it up with this week? A buzzword-laden, aggrieved in tone, defense of the President's war in Iraq, the NSA spying scandal and the torture of prisoners by the CIA. The three issues that no Republican in his right mind would touch, phrased in a way that cuddles him right up to the single most unpopular politician in America right now. I could almost see this ad running in small markets in a primary where he was facing a challenger with better right-wing credentials ... not that Jim Talent can face a candidate farther to the right, unless David Duke were to move to Missouri or John Ashcroft were to come out of retirement. But it feels to me like this week's ad buy has to have completely undone all of the good will he built up in the preceding months. What in the heck was his campaign thinking?

So, good news for the McCaskill campaign, right? Umm ... I wish. Both she and the DNCC unveiled ads this week that touted the same message: Claire McCaskill will solve the problem of high gas prices by raising taxes. No, really, that's what the ads said. I almost think I understand what they were trying to do here. These ads were almost certainly composed and filmed before gas prices started (conveniently, don't you think, for an industry so deeply in bed with the Republicans in the last two months before an election the Republicans are in trouble in?) dropping steadily, when outrage over high gas prices was still political issue number one. When newspaper accounts (that almost nobody who's capable of being swayed by a campaign TV ad read) were going on and on about how, instead of investing the huge profits they were making on gas at those prices into expanding supply the oil company CEOs and wealthy shareholders were simply pocketing the unprecedented numbers of billions of dollars. So doubtless some political operative somewhere thought it would be good politics, even though it's only vaguely related to her signature issue and most famous core competency of going after corruption, for her to bash the oil companies.

But anybody with anything resembling even a tiny fraction of her family's experience in politics here in Missouri has to know that Missouri is one of the most knee-jerk, viciously, even irrationally anti-tax states in the union. There's a reason why Missouri ranks 44th over all (last numbers I saw) in per-capita taxation and per-capita state spending; clear majorities of Missourians assume that nearly all tax money sent to any government will be stolen. So how these ads spent weeks being poured over for the purpose of polishing them, then at least days being filmed and edited, then days or weeks being vetted to make sure they were perfect, without anybody pointing out that the ads put Claire McCaskill in the position of saying, "We're going to make companies lower prices on something by massively raising their taxes!," I have no idea. Something that dumb ought to have been impossible from a campaign at her level of intense scrutiny and investment.

I guess the bottom line is that, remarkably, both campaigns probably just wasted their money running negative "smear ads" against their own candidates the same week so the net effect was probably minimal. It's not something that ought to be worrying me. And it probably wouldn't, if I didn't have such a bad case of Engineer's Disease ... if I didn't cringe so hard when I see even my enemies do something so badly.