Welcome to the scorched-earth phase of the TV ad wars of Campaign 2010. Gone, for the most part, are the gauzy visuals, cheerful morning-in-America colors and earnest I-want-to-serve-the-people voices of campaign bio spots. Now with the election less than five weeks away and early voting beginning in many states, this is tar-and-feather time.
If a campaign has anything on its opponent (perhaps secret financial ties to North Korea or a shocking history of unpaid library fines), this is the moment to highlight these character flaws in a 30-second attack ad. If you are an imperiled incumbent (and this year that word is almost synonymous with Democrat), about the only strategy left is to go on TV to prove to the voters that your challenger has (the camera zeroes in for a close-up) cloven feet and an extremist record.
How I wish I could say – selfless slave to journalism that I am -- that I watch the campaign commercials so you don't have to. But unless you are a particularly dedicated Thoreau at Walden Pond re-enactor, you too are cursed with the downside of democracy and the vitriol that comes with the vote. A month ago, I subjected myself to the first round of 30-second spots from Senate and House races around the country, questing after the great clichés of an ugly campaign year. Now, as I survey the bomb-cratered political landscape and tote up the casualty lists of destroyed reputations, I realize that watching TV ads back in late August now qualifies as the Good Old Days.
While there remains a cookie-cutter quality to many campaign ads (where is the Don Draper of modern political advertising?), the latest commercials are beginning to reflect the individualized flavor of specific races. Here then are some memorable (or, at least, memorably disheartening) moments from recently aired TV spots in Senate and House races from Connecticut to California:
Crime and Punishment – the Ultimate Attack Ad: After being nabbed in a prostitution scandal, Louisiana Republican David Vitter quickly transcended his shame by running for re-election to the Senate as if nothing had ever happened. It is easy to imagine the frustration of Democrat Charlie Melancon, who gave up his House seat to oppose the seemingly tarnished Vitter only to find himself behind by double-digit margins in the polls.
That is why Melancon rolled the dice Wednesday by unveiling a two-minute ad (not even Marcel Proust would make a commercial that long) that reprised the Vitter scandal (complete with an interview with a prostitute that the senator allegedly patronized) in a way that would enliven any high-school civics class on politics: "The case of the senator and the madam in 'Lawmaker, Lawbreaker.'"
Just the Facts, Ma'am: At a time when few running for national office have credibility, often the most devastating tactic is to use a clip of your opponent's actual words as a boomerang. In the high-stakes California Senate race, Republican Carly Fiorina, trailing incumbent Barbara Boxer in recent polls, takes the senator's 2009 exchange with a general over courtesy titles and diabolically turns it into a character flaw. "Could you say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am'?" Boxer asked the general in both reality and in a clip shown at the beginning of the Fiorina ad. "It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it." All this leads up to Fiorina staring directly into the camera as she says with mocking incredulity in her voice, "Twenty-eight years in Washington -- and Barbara Boxer works hard for a title? I'll really go to work to end the arrogance in Washington."
FDR and the Gift That Keeps on Giving: When Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, even most far-seeing New Dealers could not have imagined that Democrats would still be using it as a campaign weapon 75 years later. But as the early autumn polls create panicked Democrats, they are once again following their party's permanent disaster plan: "In case of emergency, break glass and scream, 'Social Security.'" It, of course, helps factually that enough Republicans (such as George W. Bush in 2005) have actually supported privatization of Social Security – or, at least, made ambiguous comments on the topic in public. A devastating version of a Social Security attack ad is being aired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to support veteran South Carolina Congressman John Spratt in his difficult race against state senator Mick Mulvaney. It claims that Mulvaney believes that Social Security violates the Constitution and then cleverly shows a fetching array of elderly voters (my favorite is a granny in a pink gingham dress and a pocketbook) in a police lineup for violating the law.
Nancy Pelosi and the Power to Cloud Men's Minds: Running against veteran Democratic incumbents who have survived many tough elections in marginal districts, the Republicans are attributing everything to the dread Pelosi Effect. As an emblematic ad for Bill Flores who is running against Texas Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards puts it, "Chet's not telling the truth about himself. Since Nancy Pelosi took over, Edwards votes with her 96 percent of the time." The off-screen male announcer ends with this tagline: "Our congressman has changed. It's time to change our congressmen." A similar ad sponsored by the National Republican Campaign Committee against the embattled John Spratt claims, "For years, Congressman John Spratt was listening to South Carolina. But since Nancy Pelosi took over, he's become a rubber stamp . . . He's not our congressman any more, he works for her." Needless to say, the ad ends with Spratt rubber-stamping votes for the "cap-and-trade energy tax" and the "Obama health care bill."
Linda McMahon Packs a Lunchbox Metaphor: If you were a wrestling mogul out to set a Senate campaign spending record in Connecticut, you might be careful about mixing your social class metaphors. But Republican Linda McMahon – in one of the strangest positive ads of this campaign year – is filmed in an attractive white-tiled kitchen (maybe her own) as a grimy metal lunchbox sits on a counter. "A lot of people ask me why I'm running for Senate," McMahon says staring into the camera. "Here's why? This lunchbox. It represents a lot of people who've lost jobs." The unanswered question: How many of the blue-collar unemployed have a kitchen this nice?
Now for the good news – in just 33 days we can turn our TV sets back on without wearing a flak jacket.