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White House blunders with its flawed attack ad


WASHINGTON -- If there were a prize for political stupidity, it would have to go this week to the White House and Democratic National Committee for the television commercial that crudely distorted the views of one of its Republican targets, Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina.

It was just the kind of thing that most alienates American voters. And in this case it may be the kind of thing that makes it more difficult for President Clinton to pass his health-care reform program.

Taken at face value, the 30-second commercial is an effective one that depicts Republicans as blindly refusing to recognize there is a crisis in health care. In addition to Campbell, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, former housing secretary Jack Kemp and former defense secretary Dick Cheney all are shown making such denials. Then a narrator adds: "The Republicans. First they said there was no recession. Now they say there is no health-care crisis. They just don't get it."

In purely tactical terms, the spot looks like a winner by making the GOP leaders seem out of step with America. Except for a few conservatives on the extreme right, however, most Republicans in Congress seem to have come to the view that some health care reform makes sense and that total intransigence is politically foolish.

The problem was the snippet of Campbell saying only "there's not a crisis." That little gem was taken from this answer in a television interview: "Number one, you shouldn't say there's not a crisis. There's a crisis for people that don't have health care. And there is a crisis in the financing. There's not a crisis in the whole medical system of America, and there's a different interpretation." Replying to another question, the South Carolina Republican also said: "But there are areas that are in crisis that need to be dealt with."

Unsurprisingly Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman, seized the opportunity, firing off a letter to Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm and asking for an apology to Campbell for this "intentional deception."

The Democrats decided simply to hang tough. Wilhelm rejected the demand from Barbour. DNC press secretary Catherine Moore accused Campbell of making "semantic arguments." And Mandy Grunwald, the consultant to the White House who put together the commercial, told the Washington Post Campbell was trying to "weasel around" because he holds an "untenable" position on the crisis. It was a stonewall Richard M. Nixon might have applauded.

And the blunder came at a particularly awkward time for the White House -- just when President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were complaining about the health insurance industry's "Harry" and "Louise" commercials. Hillary Clinton called them "just simply misleading" in their claims about the effects of the Clinton plan, although it would be hard to imagine anything more misleading than pulling those four words out of Campbell's response.

But even if the commercial had not been flawed by the inclusion of Campbell, there is reason to wonder about the strategy of taking a hard-line partisan position on the health-care question. Rebutting the misleading arguments of the health insurance industry is one thing, pushing Dole and other Republican leaders into a corner is quite another. The conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill is that the final product is likely to be a bipartisan program.

Moreover, the White House attack is particularly puzzling applied to Campbell, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Dole. Campbell has opposed the employer mandate as a destructive burden on small business but has not taken the position that legislation isn't needed. Dole originally adopted the "no crisis" rhetoric but quickly rowed back from it, softening his stance a week or more before the commercial was produced.

The incident suggests that the White House -- which is where the commercial originated -- is still having trouble distinguishing between campaigning and governing the country. There is a place for the attack commercial, but this wasn't one of them -- even if it had not been so seriously flawed.

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