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Sunday, March 21, 2004

By Steven Taylor @ 9:40 am

This piece is supposed to have run in today’s Mobile Register. However, their web woes continue, and so there is no e-version. So, here’s the submitted version in its unedited splendor:

Reality TV

Eight. Long. Months. That is how long we have to watch the newest reality TV show that is all the rage on all the nets: Bush v. Kerry. We have a long wait to find out whether President Bush is voted off the island or not, and so can look forward to an ongoing version of political smack-down over the public airwaves.

Even hard-core political junkies may grow tired of the contest.

This year�s presidential campaign is unique for two reasons. The first is that this year marks the earliest that the opposition party has been able to declare a clear presumptive nominee to face a sitting president. It has been clear since the implosion of Howard Dean in Iowa and New Hampshire in January that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. The post-Super Tuesday withdrawal of John Edwards from the race made Kerry the presumptive nominee. So, from the first week of the month of March we have known, without any doubt, that the November ballot would pit Kerry against Bush.

The second unique aspect of the 2004 campaign is that neither Senator Kerry, nor President Bush, is accepting federal matching funds for small contributions to their campaigns. Under federal law, candidates can receive federal dollars in a one-to-one match for every contribution from an individual who contributes $250.00 or less. The price tag, however, is that a candidate receiving matching funds must agree to spending limits. However, Kerry and Bush have both eschewed the matching funds, and therefore do not have to adhere to caps. They are still bound by the fact that individuals can give each campaign no more than $2000 and Political Action Committees can give no more than $5000. Still, the important element is that they can raise and spend without any strictures, which is the first time there has been such a situation.

Indeed, in 2000 the cap on pre-nomination spending was $40.5 million, and the figure would have been similar this year. However, President Bush�s re-election campaign had already raised $145.6 million by the end of January, and Kerry�s campaign $32.9 million in the same time period. Further, the money spigot was turned on for Kerry once he has secured his party�s nomination. Had he accepted the matching fund he would be unable to mount any kind of defense against Bush before the summer, now, however, he can raise and spend with impunity to try and match the fund-raising juggernaut that is the Bush re-election campaign.

So, we have here an unprecedented confluence of money and time, and the opportunity for things to get nasty in a hurry. And, already the clashes have begun.

The first salvo in this still young campaign between Kerry and Bush came with the release by the Bush campaign of two commercials in the first week of March which featured passing images of the events of 911. This caused a furor in some camps, including the family members of some 911 victims, who accused the President of exploiting the tragedy of that day for political gain.

Now, it is rather unlikely that the Bush re-election team will leave 911 out of their campaign. Indeed, one could argue that some of the criticisms aimed at the ads from the Kerry camp were more about trying to neutralize a potential strength of the President�s, i.e., his handling of the 911 aftermath (when his approval ratings soared in the 80s and 90s), than it was the result of a sincere desire not to exploit certain images and events.

One thing is for certain: whether one likes it or not, this campaign is going to be, in large measure, about 911: both in terms of how Bush handled it and how Bush or Kerry would handle any future such events. As such, it is hardly surprising that the Bush campaign would use images related to 911 or make specific reference to those events.

The interesting issue isn�t really the usage of the images, but rather how the debate was more about the appropriateness of a particular image instead of over policy and governance. This flap has continued this week with criticism of a new Bush ad in which a reference is made to terrorism while the picture of a Middle Eastern-looking individual appears on the screen. This has lead to charges that the Bush campaign is engaging in stereotyping and race-baiting.

The remarkable element in both stories is that the public debate ends up being about a one-to-three second image rather than the policy issues that the commercials are supposed to be about.

Given the amount of time and money available to each candidate, look for this type of tit-for-tat to continue vis-�-vis the visuals in commercials. Ironically, such controversy is often good for the campaign whose ad is under attack, as the debate over the ad leads to the ad being shown, for free, on the news, often multiple times. Of course, if the public decides that the controversy over an ad is appropriate then such repeated showing could damage the candidate. The remarkable thing about this entire enterprise, however, is that the debate becomes one about the intentions of candidates and their campaigns for choosing a particular image rather than what they might actually do as the occupant of the Oval Office.

One saving grace, I suppose, of Alabama being a state that is unlikely to be seriously contested in November, is that we will be spared much of this on-air onslaught. Still, the content and funding of these ads will be part of the news analysis over the next two hundred and forty-ish days.

Steven L. Taylor, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Troy State University.

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