Next campaign: already on the air

Never before has so much money been spent so soon after an election to begin shaping public opinion.

As President Bush hit the 100-day mark over the weekend, a new ad hit the airwaves: A little girl with blond corkscrew curls gazes sweetly at the camera. She holds up a glass. "May I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy?" she asks.

The ad's biting humor - courtesy of the Democratic National Committee - may seem sharp even by today's standards. But what's truly unusual is the timing.

Never has the onslaught of political advertising started so early in a presidency. Spurred by the GOP's reed-thin majority in Congress and early jockeying for the midterm elections, vast sums are already being spent by the two major parties and special-interest groups to sway a public that has barely rested from Campaign 2000.

The result is what could be called the 365/4 campaign: Ad wars that run all year, every year, of a presidency.

The trend is making it difficult for Mr. Bush to carry out his stated goal of changing the tone in Washington. Today, he's invited all 535 members of Congress over for iced tea at the White House. Despite the sheen of comity, however, the partisanship on both sides remains as entrenched as ever.

"The whole previous Democratic administration was used to the continuous campaign. So I think it's just an extension of that," says David Peeler, who heads Competitive Media Reporting, which tracks advertising.

The Republican National Committee, in keeping with the president's above-the-fray approach, is not yet responding in kind. But that hasn't stopped groups that support Bush's agenda from running their own ads.

Already, an unprecedented number of issue ads has been directed at the president's agenda, both for and against, says Mr. Peeler. In contrast, he didn't detect any such advertising during Bill Clinton's first 100 days.

"Everybody gets a 100-day grace period, and this is the first time we haven't seen the grace period," says Peeler.

Since January, groups like the Club for Growth, a strong advocate for tax cuts, have spent at least $415,000 on broadcast advertising backing Bush's agenda.

On the other side, labor and environmental organizations have spent more than twice that amount battling the president's program.

These organizations have learned from experience that issue ads can have a tremendous impact on the way Congress votes, say analysts. Remember how Harry and Louise helped kill Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan?

But now, instead of waiting until a piece of legislation is approaching a vote, these groups are moving to try to shape the debate early on, so they have even more of an impact.

"We've seen an evolving magnitude of groups and partisan issues, of pressure being put on Congress to vote," says Marilyn Roberts, a political advertising specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Today, compromises are hammered out [based] on public-opinion polling data," which helps explain the early rush of issue ads, she says.

It's not just debate these groups want to shape, however. The 2002 midterm elections - which will determine whether the closely divided Congress stays in GOP hands or not - are a huge motivating factor.

Both sides are hoping to gain momentum by either advancing or derailing parts of the Bush agenda.

"We think it's very important that the tax cut pass to elect more pro-growth congressmen in 2002," says David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth.

His organization recently aired ads in the home states of three GOP senators who crossed party lines to vote with Democrats for a tax cut lower than the president's signature $1.6 trillion package.

In March, the club produced a national ad on "the tax blob," which aired on cable news channels. In it, a giant red blob - the tax burden - engulfs the Capitol building.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the RNC, says the Democrats are mistaken if they believe that "the school of the permanent campaign ... will work now." Like the president, he says, "the American people do want a new tone in Washington."

But Democrats counter that Bush's efforts to soften the tone have been little more than window dressing. They say true bipartisanship must include consultation and compromise on issues like tax cuts, healthcare, education, and the environment.

In recent days, it looks like they've been getting their wish, as Bush - ever the pragmatist - has begun a slight retreat from his $1.6 trillion tax cut and education proposals.

Even so, it's unlikely that Democrats will call a cease-fire anytime soon. Terry McAuliffe, the DNC chairman, is already in full campaign mode. And the issues he's picked to hammer the Republicans - such as the environment - are especially salient with swing voters, says Ms. Roberts.

"The 2002 midterm elections aren't that far away," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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