Twenty-two years after Ronald Reagan spun out-of-control deficits into "rebirth," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has contrived to run the greatest American political ad essentially in reverse, and so to cast his hapless opponent into the ominous gloaming. It's a cruel masterpiece.
Between now and November, Schwarzenegger can get caught groping Miss Teen Fresno, the California Republican party can make Barry Bonds its chairman and President Bush can declare war on Oregon.
Arnold is still a lock.
This has nothing to do with his performance as governor, which in our opinion has been erratic at best. Nor with the qualifications of his opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides. It certainly has nothing to do with a Republican resurgence; the GOP has brilliantly maneuvered itself out of its so-called permanent majority in Congress and may run third in the mid-terms to the Whigs.
No, credit here goes only to the campaign ads, which began running about five minutes after Angelides got the nomination, and which etched the contest in stone: The Democrat represents a step backward for California.
"It was a time of gray skies, punishing taxes, disappearing jobs, a state near bankruptcy," says the gravelly-voiced narrator, over gunmetal images of life in reverse. Buildings being deconstructed. Traffic moving backward. Angelides himself dismally moonwalking in super-slow motion. "Will California move backward with politician Phil Angelides, who promises to raise taxes on California families by $10 billion, or keep moving forward protecting the California dream for you and your family? That's our choice."
Well, of course, in reality that isn't the choice. The text is really just boilerplate rhetoric, ignoring the state's ongoing fiscal and political crises and trotting out the threadbare pieties of the GOP. But that hardly matters because, for one thing, claims that Schwarzenegger has moved California forward are plainly subjective and therefore not demonstrably false.
But more than that, the text is scarcely important. What counts here is the imagery -- the indelible imagery -- of retreat.
The political consultancy Strategic Perception, Hollywood, has taken the stirring optimism of Reagan's "Morning in America" and found its reciprocal: a grim and pessimistic vision of an Angelides governorship. Talk about gloom and doom. In this quintessential example of campaign noir, sunny Californians are deprived not only of prosperity and progress, but of the sun itself.
It's bleak. It's simple. It's devastating.
Like the "flip-flop" charge that destroyed Stuttering John Kerry, "backward" has defined Angelides from the start and will do so till the finish. Worse yet for the challenger, Schwarzenegger's 5-1 cash advantage will enable him to drum the definition into the head of every voter many times over.
There is always, of course, the possibility that voters will resist such blunt, disingenuous tactics and carefully examine the campaign's assertions against the available facts. Perhaps they will parse the "$10 billion tax on families" rhetoric and see that the tax is intended for those earning more than $250,000. Perhaps they will question what, exactly, in Schwarzenegger's term of office has propelled the state forward.
And perhaps the 49ers will go to the Super Bowl.
Except that they won't.
No, this race is over. For the Democrats, it can only now serve as fair warning for what is to follow in the presidential race in two years' time. Whoever wins the nomination had better be prepared to face instant branding from the competition. Bush could indeed invade Oregon. But what's that against, for example:
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Review 3.5 stars
Agency: Strategic Perception
Location: Hollywood, Calif.