Clint Eastwood Chrysler ad: why some Republicans support it

Some Republicans – most notably Newt Gingrich – like the Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood. Indeed, the controversy over the ad might have little to do with the ad, at all. 

Cliff Owen/AP
Actor and director Clint Eastwood speaks with reporters during the opening of the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington earlier this month.

Many Republicans didn’t like Chrysler's Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad, “It’s Halftime in America.” Former Bush White House political guru Karl Rove was perhaps the biggest name to voice his dislike of the spot, which featured Mr. Eastwood talking in his iconic granite-chip voice about Detroit and the auto industry’s renewal.

The ad – and the positive way in which some Obama administration officials responded to it­ – “makes me nervous about the link between big government and the big businesses it bailed out,” wrote Mr. Rove in a Feb. 7 Fox News opinion piece.

Now, we’ve written before that as a native Detroiter we saw the ad as a paen to the Motor City and its resilience in the face of adversity. And that’s how Eastwood himself is portraying it. In a statement released earlier this week to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, the former mayor of Carmel, Calif., said that he thought the ad was something all politicians could get behind.

“It was meant to be a message about job growth and the spirit of America,” said Eastwood.

And here’s an interesting development: some Republicans are defending the ad, as well.

There’s GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for one. “I liked the tone of that ad,” he said in a Feb. 8 campaign stop at a Jergens Inc. plant in Cleveland. “The world has counted us down before and we’re just regrouping,” he said.

OK, it’s not like Mr. Gingrich is part of the current GOP establishment. But would you have thought that someone presenting himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney would go against Rove? Hmm, you’re right. That might make sense. Rove defines the GOP establishment. Gingrich needs to have a second-half primary comeback himself.

He’s not the only Republican in Eastwood’s corner, though. The chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Bobby Schostak, told reporters in Washington on Feb. 9 that it hadn’t crossed his mind the ad could be interpreted as pro-Obama.

“I thought it was one of those great Detroit messages – we’re back and we’re fighting, working hard and producing great cars,” said Mr. Schostak, according to a report of the meeting in the Detroit News.

Republican lawmaker Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has also backed Eastwood, whom he calls a personal friend.

“He loves American iron. He loves America, and for him to make that commercial was completely appropriate to who he is,” said Issa, according to the News report.

So what’s going on? Well, since we’re a pundit of sorts, we’ll put on our infallibility cloak and see what theory we can come up with.

It’s our belief that Rove, who is a very smart guy, is trying to frame an important issue for the coming general election campaign.

Democrats joke that Obama’s slogan in 2012 will be “Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.” Rove wants to neutralize the second part of that statement.

The ex-Bush aide knows that government bailouts in general are unpopular with voters. So he wants to remind us that bailouts are what propped up the auto industry. He uses the word numerous times in his Fox opinion piece, along with references to “billions in taxpayer dollars.”

The Obama team, in contrast, wants voters to see the auto firms through a gauzier lens. They know that a string of profitable quarters and some hot new products have raised the reputation of the firms formerly known as the “Big Three.”

Gallup poll data shows this trend. In 2009, at the depths of their troubles, the auto companies had only a 24 percent positive approval rating among Americans. But by last August that figure had almost doubled, to a 42 percent positive rating.

Thus the Eastwood Chrysler ad may be just a bystander, if you will – a convenient pretext for both sides to begin efforts to try and shape opinion on an important aspect of the 2012 race.

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