In an election year like 1994, 2006 and 2008 in which one party is clearly on the defensive in all states and on all levels, it is not surprising to see different candidates use similar tactics either to escape their party’s dismal reputation or to exploit their camp’s built-in advantage. One common point we are seeing in countless Democratic ads this cycle is images of whatever Republican the ad is running against in an embrace with President Bush. In particular, this is the strategy Barack Obama and Al Franken have been using over the past 2 weeks to get out of a tricky situation.
To some extent, all Republicans are aware that their main hope for survival is to make the election a referendum on their opponent - change, yes, but this particular change is too risky. But Norm Coleman and John McCain’s opening is greater than that of other GOPers. Al Franken’s past as a comedian provides Coleman with ammunition other Republicans can only dream of. And enough coverage and advertisement is devoted to the presidential race that any candidate can be made to seem risky - particularly someone who is still relatively unknown to the electorate.
As a result, Coleman has been fairly successful at implementing this strategy, hurting Franken’s credibility with relentless attacks on his character. McCain upped the volume of his own personal attacks just last week - and so far polls suggest that it might be working for him as well. As a result, the task that awaits Barack Obama and Al Franken is clear: put the spotlight back on their Republican opponents by reminding voters of their party label.
In his initial response ad, Franken started off defending himself and blaming Coleman’s negative tone, before launching a broader attack on Coleman that included a picture of the Senator embracing George Bush. Over the week-end, Franken upped the volume with a hard-hitting ad entirely devoted to Coleman’s ties with the White House:
“He says he is working for you,” starts the ad before moving to a still picture of an embrace between Coleman and Bush: “But on the 10 issues most critical to the bush presidency, Norm Coleman has stood with George Bush… So who do you believe? Norm Coleman’s TV ads or his record?” Franken’s goal is clear: No matter what Coleman says about me, is there anything I could have done that is worse than the Senator’s support for Bush’s agenda? Given that polls continue to show Bush is a huge drag on all Republicans including on McCain, this is Franken’s best bet to overcome Coleman’s attacks.
The state GOP is protesting this latest Franken ad and arguing that Coleman has opposed many elements of Bush’s program. Yet, any day a Republican incumbent is forced to defend his association with the President is a losing day - just as any day Franken is forced to defend his past jokes, any day Obama is forced to respond to questions on race or on his support for the troops is a sign they are in trouble. Republicans also insist that the ad’s use of the presidential seal in the ad is violating federal law.
Obama’s past two ads follow a path remarkably similar to Franken’s. After McCain’s “celeb” attack, he released a response ad that deplored McCain’s negativity before spending a few seconds tying him to Bush. Yesterday, Obama unveiled a more direct attack ad (called “pocket”) that does more of an effort to tarnish McCain’s image based on his association with Bush as well as his support for “Big Oil.” And today, we got our hands on a third contrast ad (called “national priority”) - once again devoted to energy (Ben Smith reports that the ad has been running since last week in battleground states but was just released to the press today):
This ad is very similar to yesterday’s “pocket” ad. The first half is devoted to attacking McCain (”He’s been in Washington for 26 years. And as gas prices soared and dependence on oil exploded, McCain was voting against alternative energy, against higher mileage standards”) using a new picture of a Bush and McCain embrace. The second half is devoted to Obama’s energy plan (”He’ll make energy independence an urgent national priority, raise mileage standards, fast-track technology for alternative fuels. A thousand dollar tax cut to help families as we break the grip of foreign oil. A real plan, and new energy”).
The ad is intended to undermine McCain’s maverick image, tie him back with the Administration - while also highlighting a specific detail of Obama’s plan to show he is not just “Doctor No.” For now, McCain has not been as hurt by his party label as other candidates would have been and it is urgent for Democrats to rectify that. With 3 different ads now on air that are using a picture of a Bush-McCain embrace, the Obama campaign is hoping that image becomes a bigger part of the political conversation - and they might very well be right. “Pocket” and “national priority” reinforce each other, especially as they are both devoted to the same issue in a show of message discipline. Together, they are a step in the right direction and show Obama is committed to making the Bush-McCain connection (though if the ad has been running since last week it would mean that it has not been enough to prevent the tightening most week-end polls showed).
Yet, it is hard to shake off the impression that Obama is still allowing McCain to dictate the terms of the debate. Are Democrats this worried that energy is hurting them that they are accepting to stay focused on the one issue the GOP feels can save them? And more generally, Obama does not seem particularly committed to getting the spotlight off of him and forcing voters to think more about his opponent, for a change. Is this ad enough of an attempt to get the spotlight back on the Arizona Senator - or is Obama’s camp, like Kerry’s was, fundamentally averse to the type of buzz-generating ads that get labeled as excessively nasty but forces the candidate under attack to play defense? There is plenty of material the campaign could use in such an effort, even if it wants to remain focused on policy and air contrast ads rather than openly negative ones. So are these new ads enough? Only time will tell - but Obama should make sure his campaign does not repeat the mistakes of 2004.