This is the last week that most Americans can turn on their TV sets and be comforted by such familiar cultural touchstones as party-on beer commercials and advertisements for desperate, must-clear-our-inventory car dealers. By Labor Day, it will be all political spots all the time in our biennial celebration of the right to vote – and the hazards to sanity that come with it.
Campaign commercials tend to be about as predictable as Paris Hilton's denials after an arrest. We are all sadly familiar with the security-camera videos, the voice-of-doom narration and the horror-movie music that are the essential ingredients in a 30-second attack ad. But each campaign year, there are updates in the poll-driven formulas as media consultants grope for the right words to sell a problematic product.
Still, the clichés are unavoidable – and provide a window into what this tumultuous campaign year is all about.
So as a masochistic exercise, I watched a random selection of roughly 75 recent campaign ads that I found on the Web sites of Senate and House candidates from both parties who are locked in competitive races. I purposely ignored Web-only ads, which often run to Russian-novel length (as long as three minutes), since they are viewed mostly by political diehards rather than ordinary voters.
At the end of my ordeal -- with my heart racing from my pent-up anger at anyone who has ever set foot in the District of Columbia – I realized that neither party has come up with the break-through 2010 campaign commercial. As media consultants reach into their familiar trick bag, there is still a mismatch between what is being put on television and what general-election voters presumably want after being battered by recession and dispirited by dashed hopes.
Republican Cliché: Washington Destroyed a Booming Bush Economy
GOP campaign ads deliberately foster the impression that the 2008 economic collapse had little to do with Wall Street and had no connection with a Republican president named George W. Bush. "Washington is failing," ominously begins a typical ad
aired by Pennsylvania Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who is running against Democrat Joe Sestak. "Bailouts. Takeovers. A stimulus that gave us record debt without creating jobs. Congressman Joe Sestak voted for all of it." Like "The Wizard of Oz," the 30-spot begins in black-and-white and only bursts into radiant color when (guess what?) Pat Toomey appears on the screen to promise, "More jobs. Less government."
This is the ultimate Republican cookie-cutter ad. In the hard-fought Missouri Senate race for a GOP-held open seat, Republican Roy Blunt goes after Robin Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state, in similar terms.
Using a woman as the voice-over announcer (most GOP attack ads use a similar gender-based technique), the Blunt ad states . . . well . . .bluntly
, "Robin Carnahan will say anything to hide her record rubber-stamping the Obama agenda . . . The disastrous stimulus bill? Government-run health care? A new energy tax? Robin Carnahan supports them all. Do you?"
In a race against Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy for North Dakota's lone House seat, GOP challenger Rick Berg (who for some bizarre visual reason is standing in what looks like an unfinished basement) launched his first TV ad
in mid-August decrying, "Record deficits. Trillion-dollar bailouts. Government-run health care. That's how they run things in Washington."
Democratic Cliché: What Stimulus Package? What Health-Care Bill?
Amnesia is a bipartisan affliction judging from the campaign ads. A classic of the who-me? genre is an early August spot
aired by Democratic Senate incumbent Patty Murray in Washington state, who voted for the 2008 bank rescue bill. Running against Republican Dino Rossi, who has never served in Congress, Murray introduces an ad featuring an off-screen male announcer who laments, "Bailouts. Bonuses. Lost savings. Foreclosed homes. Dino Rossi first refused to take a position on Wall Street reform and then had a fund-raiser on Wall Street."
Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, another vulnerable Democratic incumbent, at least accurately portrays his own voting record as he runs for cover against the anti-Washington tide. Doing his own voice-over
, Feingold declares in a recent ad, "Unfair trade agreements. Letting Wall Street run wild. From day one I voted against them because they cost Wisconsin families jobs."
Few candidates in either party are as elusive as Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who is running for re-election to the House from South Dakota as (ssshhh) a Democrat. In a new commercial that hits every populist hot button
, she narrates as the ad begins with an airborne view of the prairie, "In Washington, they call this flyover country. They look down from 30,000 feet . . I took on liberal leaders to protect our right to own guns . . .I approve this message because no matter what party is in charge, I do what's right for South Dakota."
Republican Cliché: I'm a Citizen Who Hates Politics
Since long before William Henry Harrison was elected president in 1840 by pretending to have been born in a log cabin and to love hard cider (a precursor to pork rinds), candidates have trumpeted their humble up-from-the-soil roots. But now that Washington is in the cross-hairs, this theme is reaching near comic proportions.
Dino Rossi, the Republican running against Patty Murray, is narrating a gauzy bio spot
that begins, "Growing up, I was the youngest of seven raised on a school teacher's salary. I worked my way through college as a janitor waxing floors at the Space Needle. That's why I can't stand what's going on in the United States Senate. They're wasting money on programs that aren't creating jobs." This angry-janitor commercial raises the obvious question: Would Rossi be nearly as mad if he worked his way through college washing dishes in a fraternity or selling encyclopedias door to door?
Ron Johnson, Feingold's GOP challenger in Wisconsin, adroitly plays the just-folks card in one of the rare humorous commercials
of this sobering political year. Mocking the standard meet-my-wonderful-family political ads, the Johnson spot features his wife and children ineptly reading testimonials off of unseen cue cards. Halfway through, Johnson bursts in to say, "That's enough. I'm not a professional politician and they're not professional actors. We're just a Wisconsin family worried about our country."
Democratic Cliché: Okay, I'm Not Perfect. But Have You Seen My Opponent?
This is the Harry Reid strategy in Nevada as the unpopular Senate majority leader is waging a scorched-earth campaign against Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, who makes Republicans like Newt Gingrich seem like the reincarnation of Nelson Rockefeller. Picking up on Angle's incendiary talk
about "Second Amendment remedies," the latest Reid spot ends with the tag line, "Sharron Angle. Just Too Extreme."
Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet, who survived a primary challenge after being appointed to the Senate last year, is trying a similar tactic against his conservative GOP rival Ken Buck. After Buck recently won a bruising GOP primary, Bennet unloaded with a new commercial
(complete with the obligatory insidious male voice-over) warning about Social Security privatization and asking, "Who is Ken Buck? And does he speak for Colorado?" Even nastier is the new Robin Carnahan ad
in Missouri that ends with the tag line, "Roy Blunt, the very worst of Washington."
These are just a few of the clichés in both parties. Republicans are constantly trumpeting their common sense. In Wisconsin, Johnson even appears to claim that it amounts to an economic strategy
saying in an ad, "We can bring America back with discipline, hard work and common sense." Or as the narrator puts it in North Carolina Republican Richard Burr's new TV ad
, "He's tight with our tax dollars. That's just common sense."
Democrats, in contrast, seem to regard politics as a form of boxing. In the Connecticut Senate race for an open seat, Democrat Richard Blumenthal (one of the few candidates brave enough to wear a white shirt and tie
) ends a recent ad with this long-time Democratic trope, "The people of Connecticut know . . . that I will fight for them."
It's all so predictable. It's all so tiresome. And, yikes, it's still only August.