McCain, Obama Battle In Campaign Ads

John Harris of Politico.com analyzes competing campaign ads and looks forward to John McCain's proposal to balance the budget.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

It's Monday. Let's talk politics. An independent expenditure arm of the Republican National Committee began running a new ad this weekend. It's running in some states that have been battlegrounds - maybe they will be again - Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The ad is called "Balance."

(Soundbite of RNC campaign ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Record gas prices, a climate in crisis, John McCain says solve it now, with a balanced plan, alternative energy, conservation, suspending the gas tax, and more production here at home. He's pushing his own party to face climate change. But Barack Obama? For conservation, but he just says no to lower gas taxes, no to nuclear, no to more production, no new solutions. Barack Obama, just the party line.

PESCA: The Democratic National Committee released an ad of its own yesterday. It's called "Jobs First."

(Soundbite of DNC campaign ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Presumptive Republican Presidential Nominee): I think we are better off overall, if you look at the entire eight-year period, and you look at the millions of jobs that have been created, the improvement of the economy, et cetera.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The fundamentals of our nation's economy are strong.

Sen. MCCAIN: The fundamentals of America's economy are strong.

PESCA: Wow. Cellists are - get full employment. Everyone else suffers. John Harris is the editor in chief of Politico.com. Hey, John.

Mr. JOHN F. HARRIS (Editor in chief, Politico.com): Good morning. Very subtle stuff with those ads.

PESCA: Yeah. I thought the imperial stormtroopers would be coming after I heard the cue.

Mr. HARRIS: You know who that woman is? We hear her every election cycle in that John McCain ad. She's so scary sounding.

PESCA: Right. Because I guess the consultants say, the negative ads have to be voiced by women, right? Because the man is just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: It just sounds like Nurse Ratchet or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. HARRIS: I will do whatever you say, just go away.

PESCA: And we want to watch the World Series. Let's take them one by one. Do - the first - the Democratic ad listed a whole bunch of things, that - sorry, the first one was the Republican ad.

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

PESCA: It listed a whole bunch of things that John McCain offers as solutions that Barack Obama doesn't. One of the ones that jumped out at me was the gas tax. At least in the Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton got behind eliminating the gas tax, it really kind of blew up in her face, and Barack Obama...

Mr. HARRIS: The Democrats thought that she was pandering, that it was...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. HARRIS: A sort of an empty gesture.

PESCA: Now, I know Republicans always are against any taxes, but why do they think that'll play better in the general election?

Mr. HARRIS: I don't know where it is where you are, but you know, gas that's - I think was about $4.35 I paid this weekend. That's a huge issue, and people don't like taxes. And it's true this issue did not play in the Democratic primary, because, you know, it was being sort of broadcast at not terribly receptive electorate. But in the general electorate, you know, a lot of these swing states have lots of people, many of them commute long miles, many of them not terribly affluent. The increase in gas prices has been a huge fact in their economic lives.

PESCA: And the Democratic ad, you know, they always want to link McCain to Bush, but the stuff that McCain was saying, that we have added millions of jobs in the eight-year period, isn't that factually accurate?

Mr. HARRIS: It is. It's also true that most economists think we're either in recession or right on the brink of recession. So, saying all is well when the, you know, the bow of the Titanic seems to be going under water isn't necessarily the most reassuring message.

PESCA: This is true. So let's look at the meta issue, though. The Republicans, the RNC has a lot more money to spend on ads. They have about over 50 million dollars in the bank. The DNC has, you know, four million in the bank.

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

PESCA: And I hear they're not even paying for their convention. Is that - are those the important numbers to look for? Is the fact that Barack Obama himself can raise so much more money than John McCain, does that argue that we'll see plenty of ads from both candidates on all the issues?

Mr. HARRIS: I mean, huge amounts of money for Barack Obama, and it's a big advantage. You know, to use your words, the meta picture for a minute. We're seeing in this election cycle, for the first time, Democrats having an overwhelming financial advantage. The one part of the picture that you're talking about is isolated. It's the one bright spot for Republicans. The Republican National Committee is pretty well-funded.

The DNC, which a lot of Democratic activists like, they like Howard Dean. They like the fact that he's an organizer, and he's promised to campaign in all 50 states, isn't a great fundraising machine under Dean's leadership. So the historic advantage that Republicans have over Democrats in that one area still prevails. But overall, especially with Barack Obama not accepting public funding and the limitations that go with that, huge advantage for him this year.

PESCA: Today, John McCain is expected to announce that he has a plan to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term by curbing wasteful spending, overhauling entitlement programs, including social security. Do you know any specifics? Like, you know, overhauling social security, how's he going to do that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: The social security issue is back, and as you'll recall, when we last heard this issue, it didn't go terribly well for President Bush. This issue allows John McCain to get in touch with an issue that is important to a lot of the traditional conservative voters, who frankly aren't crazy about the record under the Bush years, which has seen some massive federal spending. Huge, huge deficits. So, this is an effort by John McCain to do two things. One, revive an issue that was pretty popular, or pretty important, to broad sections of the electorate in the 1990s, fiscal discipline and budget balance. Your pro - the president couldn't embrace that. At the same time, sending a message of reassurance, which he can't do enough, to conservatives in his own party that he really is one of them.

PESCA: Yeah. The only problem is, can you think of someone who's actually won office with the basic economic message being, I'm going to cut wasteful spending? Because it seems like every politician...

(Soundbite of laugher)

Mr. HARRIS: We could give it a try. No.

PESCA: He'll be the first.

Mr. HARRIS: And it's funny. I was - until this, we really had not heard much of the budget issue, which had been such a staple of 1990s politics. Remember Ross Perot? That was what he talked about.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. HARRIS: This was the dominant issue of the 1990s, and we really haven't heard much of it in recent years. So this is an effort to dust off a - for a golden oldie by John McCain. And you're quite right, you know, budget balances are the kind of thing that people at the Brookings Institution love. Editorial writers love it. It's not necessarily a proven winner with voters.

PESCA: I want to spend our last minute on Jesse Helms. The North Carolina senator died on July 4th. He was 86 years old. How do you estimate his legacy?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, look, if you live long enough, almost everybody can get a little bit of a burnished, warm, fuzzy reputation, and we saw this in some of the obituaries, sort of, you know, Jesse Helms, pillar of conservatism. There was nothing warm and fuzzy about Jesse Jackson's brand of politics.

PESCA: Jesse Helms, yes.

Mr. HARRIS: And he was active. He stood for a confrontational, hard-edged, many people said divisive, even hateful, brand of politics. His supporters said what he was, was an - a principled, down-the-line conservative, and he didn't mind if that offended liberal piety.

PESCA: There you go. John Harris, editor in chief of Politico.com, thank you very much.

Mr. HARRIS: Talk to you soon.

PESCA: Next on the show, flight attendants in the crossfire over high oil prices. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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