Ad Wars: Republicans Are Winning

In recent years, I've been highly critical of the tired and boring ways most Republican promote their message, especially the ads run by most candidates. The images of McCain's campaign (up until he named Sarah Palin as his running mate) depressed me to no end. Two years later, it is refreshing to see many candidates taking new approaches. Some are lighthearted and campy in nature, others serious, but they all convey variations on the same message: There are too many out-of-touch politicians out there.  

The message that these might not be the be the same tired Republican candidates began with Carly Fiorina's Demon Sheep, and continued with Dale Peterson and his Winchester, as non-traditional challengers took aim at politics-as-usual Republicans in the primaries. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow thought Fiorina's ad the worst ever, which may explain why Carly hasn't really looked back since its debut. Peterson's We are better than that ad didn't win him the election as Alabama's Ag commissioner, but it led to the runoff that put Peterson in the position of kingmaker, as his endorsed candidate beat the incumbent in the runoff. While the gathered armies of Tea Party candidates such as Rich Barber failed to deliver a win, their messages still defined the stakes in November's election. 

When the target switched to the Democrats, we started seeing ads like Vermont Senate candidate Len Britten's take off on a publishers' clearinghouse sweepstakes ad that presents an excited family not with a check, but with an invoice for their share of the national debt. Another ad by Joel Demos, a challenger who keeps on trucking in the face of genuinely monstrous odds against success come November in MN-05,  is loaded to capacity with optimism and good humor.  

Perhaps the most unusual ad so far during the general election cycle comes from the same source as Dale Peterson's ads. Republican Mattie Fein is taking on Jane Harman in CA-36, which hugs the shore of Santa Monica Bay. Fein may be hoping this offbeat parody of Young Frankenstein about stopping the unethical villain Harman from a releasing a dual use technology monster gains her both name recognition and an online fundraising boost. Both the theme and the villain's closing words -- Ahmadinejad was my boyfriend! -- aren't as odd as they may first seem. The family business, Harman International, has contracts with the U.S. Armed forces for battlefield communication devices, while its European subsidiary sells potential dual use technology to Iran.  

The Los Angeles area probably contains the largest group of Iranians outside the Middle East -- over 400,000 by some estimates. Many of them live in Harman's district. They are largely Iranian Jews and former supporters of the Shah. Westwood Boulevard, which runs through CA-36, was the site last year of demonstrations in support of election protests in Iran. Harman has had narrow escapes in the past, though not since the 2000 redistricting. If nothing else, the parody shows that creator Ladd Ehlinger can play into the political sensibilities of urban areas like Venice, California with their immigrant communities, as well as he can those of Alabama farmers.

Nor has the creativity this campaign cycle been confined to individual campaigns. The Republican Governors Association's Remember November ad brings slick jump cut drama to a message of Democrats who ignore the Constitution and make up the rules as they go along. The RGA's site for this campaign offers more along the same line. With 37 governor races at issue this fall, the drama is justified. Heritage Action for America's peek into a Democrat congressman's brainstorming session as to how he can explain why he won't be holding town hall meetings is all the funnier for its plausibility. Even the stolid RNC managed to put quickly pull together an animated political take on the JetBlue flight attendant who'd had enough and fled via the emergency chute. Next thing you know, a Republican will put together a music video about spreading unemployment being part of a sinister Democrat plan to turn us all into zombies. Wait a second, blogger Moe Lane already has!   

Perhaps the best non-candidate-specific offering has been that of Congressman Tom Price's Republican Study Committee, which intercuts footage of Ronald Reagan's 1964 "Those Voices Don't Speak for the Rest of Us" speech with the utterances of Democrat leaders in 2008 through 2010. 

This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Read the whole 1964 speech if you haven't already.  

This year, it's the Democrats' ads that seem stale and often unintentionally ironic, such as the attempt to tie Republican challengers who are often political newcomers to George W. Bush, saying "don't be fooled again." If anyone has been fooled in the last four years, it is the independent voters who expected the Democrats they elected in 2006 and 2008 to live up to the campaign promises of fiscal conservatism and helping Main Street America rather than labor unions and crony capitalists. That, along with the fact that the unemployment rate has doubled since Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, might explain why Bush is now more popular than Obama in many "frontline" Democrat congressional districts. Then there was Blanche Lincoln's "What it's Like" primary ad showing her fellow Democrats in Washington as boisterous kindergartners playing doctor and gridlocking pedal cars as they throw bushel baskets of money around. Why, that may indeed be what's it like for Lincoln these days, and I'm the only adult in my political party is not a message that is likely to win many general elections. And could Tom Perriello's media advisors have picked a worse image for the congressmen who arrived in Washington on Obama's coattails? His ad, attempting to show how hard he works for the voters of southern Virginia, has him stepping in a cow pie, among other blunders. 

I've found the best Democrat ad so far to be this one commenting on the nasty split that has taken place in the Colorado race for governor, where Tom Tancredo's third-party candidacy has probably sunk Republican Dan Maes's prospects. Not only are Democrat John Hickenlooper's repeated fully clothed trips into the shower a funny comment on negative political ads in general, but his cheerful tone all but assures that the prospect of a Democrat governor won't be scary enough to drive voters away from Tancredo's third-party candidacy.     

Perhaps the ultimate irony comes in Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's "On Our Side" ad, in which supposedly ordinary Americans praise Feingold's work. The Wisconsin GOP, along with blogger Ed Morrissey and his readers, has identified two of the six "ordinary Americans" as AFL-CIO lobbyist Joanne Ricca and AFL-CIO employee Linda Sadowski. Sadowski works in the office of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO President. At a time when union workers, particularly those belonging to public employee unions, earn far in excess of other Americans, especially when benefits are taken into account, the question "Which side are you on" has taken on a whole different meaning.  

In light of such political cynicism and deceit, I am even more heartened by the next example of truly fresh Republican message-making. Mocking the other guy is easier than bringing a new spin on saying positive things about one's self, especially as self-promotion is far more the province of big-city professionals that the ex-urban and small-town milieu that so many Republicans call home. The almost obligatory ad in which a political challenger introduces his family to the voters can be particularly hard to freshen up. One indication that Republicans are bringing exceptional levels of talent to the political arena this year is found in the new ad by Feingold's opponent, Ron Johnson. What at first glance seems to be a typical meet the family in their living room spot turns into a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the usual format. Kudos to Johnson's classic American family for poking fun at themselves even as they aim a few completely unexpected jabs at unnamed targets.
In recent years, I've been highly critical of the tired and boring ways most Republican promote their message, especially the ads run by most candidates. The images of McCain's campaign (up until he named Sarah Palin as his running mate) depressed me to no end. Two years later, it is refreshing to see many candidates taking new approaches. Some are lighthearted and campy in nature, others serious, but they all convey variations on the same message: There are too many out-of-touch politicians out there.  

The message that these might not be the be the same tired Republican candidates began with Carly Fiorina's Demon Sheep, and continued with Dale Peterson and his Winchester, as non-traditional challengers took aim at politics-as-usual Republicans in the primaries. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow thought Fiorina's ad the worst ever, which may explain why Carly hasn't really looked back since its debut. Peterson's We are better than that ad didn't win him the election as Alabama's Ag commissioner, but it led to the runoff that put Peterson in the position of kingmaker, as his endorsed candidate beat the incumbent in the runoff. While the gathered armies of Tea Party candidates such as Rich Barber failed to deliver a win, their messages still defined the stakes in November's election. 

When the target switched to the Democrats, we started seeing ads like Vermont Senate candidate Len Britten's take off on a publishers' clearinghouse sweepstakes ad that presents an excited family not with a check, but with an invoice for their share of the national debt. Another ad by Joel Demos, a challenger who keeps on trucking in the face of genuinely monstrous odds against success come November in MN-05,  is loaded to capacity with optimism and good humor.  

Perhaps the most unusual ad so far during the general election cycle comes from the same source as Dale Peterson's ads. Republican Mattie Fein is taking on Jane Harman in CA-36, which hugs the shore of Santa Monica Bay. Fein may be hoping this offbeat parody of Young Frankenstein about stopping the unethical villain Harman from a releasing a dual use technology monster gains her both name recognition and an online fundraising boost. Both the theme and the villain's closing words -- Ahmadinejad was my boyfriend! -- aren't as odd as they may first seem. The family business, Harman International, has contracts with the U.S. Armed forces for battlefield communication devices, while its European subsidiary sells potential dual use technology to Iran.  

The Los Angeles area probably contains the largest group of Iranians outside the Middle East -- over 400,000 by some estimates. Many of them live in Harman's district. They are largely Iranian Jews and former supporters of the Shah. Westwood Boulevard, which runs through CA-36, was the site last year of demonstrations in support of election protests in Iran. Harman has had narrow escapes in the past, though not since the 2000 redistricting. If nothing else, the parody shows that creator Ladd Ehlinger can play into the political sensibilities of urban areas like Venice, California with their immigrant communities, as well as he can those of Alabama farmers.

Nor has the creativity this campaign cycle been confined to individual campaigns. The Republican Governors Association's Remember November ad brings slick jump cut drama to a message of Democrats who ignore the Constitution and make up the rules as they go along. The RGA's site for this campaign offers more along the same line. With 37 governor races at issue this fall, the drama is justified. Heritage Action for America's peek into a Democrat congressman's brainstorming session as to how he can explain why he won't be holding town hall meetings is all the funnier for its plausibility. Even the stolid RNC managed to put quickly pull together an animated political take on the JetBlue flight attendant who'd had enough and fled via the emergency chute. Next thing you know, a Republican will put together a music video about spreading unemployment being part of a sinister Democrat plan to turn us all into zombies. Wait a second, blogger Moe Lane already has!   

Perhaps the best non-candidate-specific offering has been that of Congressman Tom Price's Republican Study Committee, which intercuts footage of Ronald Reagan's 1964 "Those Voices Don't Speak for the Rest of Us" speech with the utterances of Democrat leaders in 2008 through 2010. 

This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Read the whole 1964 speech if you haven't already.  

This year, it's the Democrats' ads that seem stale and often unintentionally ironic, such as the attempt to tie Republican challengers who are often political newcomers to George W. Bush, saying "don't be fooled again." If anyone has been fooled in the last four years, it is the independent voters who expected the Democrats they elected in 2006 and 2008 to live up to the campaign promises of fiscal conservatism and helping Main Street America rather than labor unions and crony capitalists. That, along with the fact that the unemployment rate has doubled since Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, might explain why Bush is now more popular than Obama in many "frontline" Democrat congressional districts. Then there was Blanche Lincoln's "What it's Like" primary ad showing her fellow Democrats in Washington as boisterous kindergartners playing doctor and gridlocking pedal cars as they throw bushel baskets of money around. Why, that may indeed be what's it like for Lincoln these days, and I'm the only adult in my political party is not a message that is likely to win many general elections. And could Tom Perriello's media advisors have picked a worse image for the congressmen who arrived in Washington on Obama's coattails? His ad, attempting to show how hard he works for the voters of southern Virginia, has him stepping in a cow pie, among other blunders. 

I've found the best Democrat ad so far to be this one commenting on the nasty split that has taken place in the Colorado race for governor, where Tom Tancredo's third-party candidacy has probably sunk Republican Dan Maes's prospects. Not only are Democrat John Hickenlooper's repeated fully clothed trips into the shower a funny comment on negative political ads in general, but his cheerful tone all but assures that the prospect of a Democrat governor won't be scary enough to drive voters away from Tancredo's third-party candidacy.     

Perhaps the ultimate irony comes in Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's "On Our Side" ad, in which supposedly ordinary Americans praise Feingold's work. The Wisconsin GOP, along with blogger Ed Morrissey and his readers, has identified two of the six "ordinary Americans" as AFL-CIO lobbyist Joanne Ricca and AFL-CIO employee Linda Sadowski. Sadowski works in the office of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO President. At a time when union workers, particularly those belonging to public employee unions, earn far in excess of other Americans, especially when benefits are taken into account, the question "Which side are you on" has taken on a whole different meaning.  

In light of such political cynicism and deceit, I am even more heartened by the next example of truly fresh Republican message-making. Mocking the other guy is easier than bringing a new spin on saying positive things about one's self, especially as self-promotion is far more the province of big-city professionals that the ex-urban and small-town milieu that so many Republicans call home. The almost obligatory ad in which a political challenger introduces his family to the voters can be particularly hard to freshen up. One indication that Republicans are bringing exceptional levels of talent to the political arena this year is found in the new ad by Feingold's opponent, Ron Johnson. What at first glance seems to be a typical meet the family in their living room spot turns into a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the usual format. Kudos to Johnson's classic American family for poking fun at themselves even as they aim a few completely unexpected jabs at unnamed targets.

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