Sunday, July 22, 2012

Campaign ad analysis

Yesterday the Barack Obama campaigned aired the following ad in the Washington DC television market, no doubt aimed at voters in Northern Virginia:

It's really quite stunning. A few points:
  • Note there is no explicit argument made. Rather it is simply the juxtaposition of Romney's poor singing of "America the Beautiful" (a ridiculous bit of political theater on his part) combined with various headlines describing rational economic behavior that involves foreign countries.  
  • The ad is further evidence that politics frequently appeals to people's "basest motivations and ignorance." Knowledgable observers would realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with anything the ad points out, and a group of economists watching the ad would most likely simply shrug their shoulders. Indeed, even leftist Matt Yglesias points out that offshoring is fine. The ad, however, is not aimed at informed voters but at those lacking formal training in economics (which is to say, the vast majority of the population).
  • To take the analysis a step further, it's worth asking why Romney would outsource jobs to Mexico and China. The obvious answer, of course, is to save money and reduce costs. Firms that fail to keep their costs down place themselves at a severe disadvantage in the marketplace and -- at the extreme scenario -- risk bankruptcy. It is not apparent why the desire of "Mitt Romney's firms" to maintain a competitive edge and remain viable via outsourcing should be a strike against Romney.
  • The second example of outsourcing cited -- Gov. Romney's outsourcing of jobs to India -- is an even more curious criticism. Logically the reason Romney did this was to save taxpayer money (most likely in back office functions, as it is impossible to outsource most government functions such as the DMV to foreign countries). By saving money, Gov. Romney was either able to use the extra money to provide even more government services (which the left should applaud, unless they believe the purpose of government is provide jobs than actual services), lower taxes or pay down debt. Doing the same work (or more work) for less money is the heart of innovation and the path to greater prosperity. Again, this is another clear appeal to voter ignorance.
  • The final headlines note the existence of a Swiss bank account and excerpts with zero context which simply read "Tax havens like Bermuda" followed by "And the Cayman Islands." Nothing illegal is directly alleged. Rather, this portion of the ad seems to rely on voter ignorance about Swiss bank accounts and their negative connotation. Jim Geraghty is likely on target when he writes that, "The only time most Americans encounter the term is at the movies, when the villainous mercenary inevitably says to his sinister employers, 'yes, yes, I will make sure the bomb explodes/our target is assassinated/Mister Bond ends up in a water tank with sharks with lasers on their head — but only after the money is wired into my Swiss bank account!'" Matt Welch also makes some good points.
It's particularly instructive that this ad comes from Barack Obama, a man who campaigned in 2008 on "hope" and "change," and stated during his nomination speech that "one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and each other's patriotism." This is important because if Mitt Romney or another Republican had aired a similar type of cynical ad (surely they exist), it could perhaps be explained as simply the expected utterances of a cynical and intellectually bankrupt political party. 

But this is Barack Obama, a confirmed Democrat that is supposed to represent everything good and pure about government and politics. If even President Obama has been reduced to airing ads that prey on voter ignorance and appear to imply questions about his opponent's patriotism, then what hope is there for an elevated type of politics that relies purely upon fact and dispassionate arguments?

The truth is that President Obama's campaign ad simply reflects the reality of politics. Campaigns are not based on unvarnished truth, but appeals to rational ignorance and symbols (Can anything else explain why Dukakis mounted that tank or Romney's singing? Or why politicians are regularly photographed touring factory floors?). Yet again we must wonder: given this system's deep and inherent flaws, why should give it any more power over our lives than is absolutely necessary?

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