Republicans and Democrats left stuck at the Monicagate

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Advertiser: Republican Congressional Committee
Agencies: Russo, Marsh & Raper, Washington;Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome, McLean, Va.
Ad Review rating: One star

You almost feel sorry for the Republicans.

Here they are, so riven by the intraparty factionalism that they can't get out of their own way, and suddenly their fondest dreams come true: Bill Clinton, their nemesis, their antichrist, their object of obsessive loathing, is revealed indisputably to be a liar and a sleaze.

And maybe even a criminal. Whereupon the gleeful Republicans, unable to contain themselves, as usual do absolutely everything wrong.

Forgetting how the public reacted the last time their personal hatred of the president backfired--when the government shut down over GOP intransigence on a budget deal--they decided to use the Starr report as a bludgeon. It wasn't enough to humiliate Clinton; they would flog him bloody.

And, predictably, the public was disgusted . . . with the Republicans. Sick of Monicagate, sick of the Starr investigation, sickened by the tawdry details, they resented the unseemly, um, dissemination of evidence and said so. It is a cynical electorate, fat, happy and at peace. They don't care that their president is scummy; the bills are getting paid.

So now, a few days before congressional elections, what do the Republicans do? Spend $10 million talking about Monica.

One of the three ads is from the "Harry & Louise" school of political advertising, in which bad actors playing "ordinary Americans" in casual conversation try to frame the issues. (This is an offshoot, by the way, of the speak-down-to-the-elderly school, in which marketers of overpriced term life insurance address seniors like morons.) Needless to say, these are casual conversations such as no casual conversation you've ever heard. This one, from Russo, Marsh & Raper, Washington, is between two soccer moms:

Screen 1 from the spot

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MOM #1: "What did you tell your kids?"

MOM #2: "I didn't know what to say."

MOM #1: "It's wrong. For seven months he lied to us."

MOM #2: "But aren't there other things to do?"

MOM #1: "And say it's OK to lie? Besides, the Republicans are doing them. They cut taxes, they helped balance the budget and they're putting people on welfare back to work.

MOM #2: "But the Democrats say . . ."

MOM #1: ". . . the truth is, the Democrats gave us higher taxes and more government."

MOM #2: "Now there's a difference that really matters."

MOM #1: "Republicans are the balance we need."

What is with these people?

Even rats learn.

There are times when it's smart for members of Congress to campaign against the president--but not when the president has approval ratings in the 70s. And there's no use suggesting that the country is in sorry shape when nobody thinks so.

A second spot, from Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome, McLean, Va., begins with gritty, slo-mo, black and white images of people placing votes in the ballot box. It has an overwrought "Grapes of Wrath" quality to it, and the somber music is something out of "The World at War."

"Should we reward Democrat plans for more big government? More big spending? Should we reward their opposition to more welfare reform? And should we reward not telling the truth? That is the question of this election. Reward Bill Clinton. Or vote Republican."

The thing is, that isn't the big question. We aren't in a depression, and this grim evocation of despair is preposterous. The big question is why we need another Republican Congress, and this campaign actually answers it. But it buries the lead.

Two spots have the tagline: "The balance America needs." There's the selling proposition. It was the Republican Congress that forced Clinton into balancing the budget, welfare reform and his entire post-'94 tilt to the right. Absent that countervailing force, they should say, Clinton would have been socializing medicine, collectivizing farms and smoking cigars with Castro. Vote Democratic, and he'll backslide instantly. In other words, as someone once said, stay the course.

This election should be very hard for the GOP to lose. But with the help of this ad campaign, they just might pull it off.

Copyright October 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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