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Ad Watch: Taxes

January 20, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESPERSON: Good evening. We welcome our six Republican candidates.

TERENCE SMITH: Money talks, especially when it’s the leading Republican candidates doing the talking on the pocketbook issue of taxes. The subject is heating up the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes — pursuing the front-running George W. Bush — has been running this ad in both states.

WOMAN IN AD: There’s something you need to know about George W. Bush. In 1994 he signed a pledge with my organization that he would not support sales tax or business tax increases. In 1997 unfortunately he broke this pledge. He proposed an increase in the business tax and sales taxes. Governor Bush wants people to examine his record to see how he will perform as president. And his record as far as taxes are concerned is a record of broken promises.

TERENCE SMITH: In response, the Republican Leadership Council is running this ad.

AD SPOKESMAN: Steve Forbes’ attack ad distorts the truth. We’re the Republican Leadership Council, and our research shows Governor Bush signed the largest tax cuts in Texas history. Sadly, Steve Forbes has a history of unfairly attacking fellow Republicans. Forbes attacked Bob Dole, which helped the Democrats. And now he’s doing it again. Call Steve Forbes. Tell him to join George Bush and John McCain in running a positive campaign on the issues.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: There is such a thing as snow.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Bush also speaks for himself, arguing that the Republican contenders should stay focused on tax talks, not trash talk.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (ad): One of my opponents said my tax cut for America is too big and too bold. Another raised questions about my record. They’re both wrong. In Texas you’re only as good as your word. In 1997, I cut taxes by $1 billion. In ’99, I cut taxes nearly $2 billion more.

TERENCE SMITH: Arizona Senator John McCain takes on his opponents on the issue of the surplus and portrays himself as the true friend of the middle-class family in this ad.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (ad): There’s one big difference between me and the others. I won’t take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy. I’ll use the bulk of the surplus to secure Social Security far into the future — to keep our promise to the greatest generation. I’ll begin to pay down the national debt so we don’t threaten the future of our children. Finally, I’ll target the large tax cuts to those who need it most: America’s middle-class, working families.

TERENCE SMITH: The Republican air war heated up further this week when Senator McCain demanded that Governor Bush stop running this ad assaulting his tax-cut proposal.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (ad): I trust the people of New Hampshire to make the right decisions for their families. If he says something I don’t agree with, I’m going to point it out. I don’t agree with leaving money in Washington D.C., and I darned sure don’t agree with saying that you’re going to take $40 billion of employer-related benefits and have the people pay tax on them. I think that is a mistake. If you abolish employer-related benefits just to pay for a tax cut, it means working people are going to have to pay those benefits.

TERENCE SMITH: So far at least the Bush camp is standing by its position and its ad.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on taxes and ads, we turn to David Gergen, editor-at-large at U.S. News & World Reportand professor of public service at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; John Carroll, a media and advertising critic who is now managing editor at WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” news and public affairs program; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome to you all.

Kathleen Jamieson, let me begin with you and ask you to give us a little help here. Sort it out. We have an acrimonious tone, some conflicting ads and now a demand from Senator McCain that Governor Bush take this last ad that we just showed down. Should he?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, he should. The McCain proposal had an ambiguous line in it, the kind of line that would make an English teacher cringe. It had too many nouns modifying nouns so it wasn’t clear who was being taxed and who would be exempted. And it was a legitimate point for the Bush people to put the worst possible construction on that and to put up an ad that ran out of worst-case scare scenario. The McCain campaign came back and said that’s not what we meant on that line. They clarified. It’s now appropriate for that debate to end.

The debate is essentially this: Bush says it’s $40 billion. McCain says it’s $4 (billion). Bush says employer-related benefits and suggests that you’re going to lose the ability as a taxpayer to get your tax deduction on that. McCain says no, I only meant that I was going to take it away from the employer. I wasn’t going to take it away from the employee.

TERENCE SMITH: So you feel they should take it down.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It’s appropriate — it was appropriate to air it when he aired it. The clarification is in place. It’s appropriate to take McCain at his word and take it down.

TERENCE SMITH: John Carroll, what about the dueling ads at the beginning of the set-up about Governor Bush’s record as a tax-cutter in Texas. Where is the truth there?

JOHN CARROLL: Well, I think the Forbes’ ad is true but not accurate, not entirely accurate. He has taken one part of it. It hasn’t given the overall context. This is what happens in political advertising time and time again. You take something that is true but without the larger context people can’t really judge on whether it’s a fair assertion, challenge, difference or not. So I think that from that standpoint it’s misleading because it’s incomplete.

As far as the Bush rejoinder, I think that’s a little problematic too because this is the second ad from the Republican Leadership Council. And they came out early and said, “Steve Forbes, if you’re thinking of running negative ads, don’t do it. You have a record of doing this.” This is before Forbes ran any kind of ad challenging any opponents at all. So, this is the second time they’ve gone after him. And I think that tarring him with his 1996 record is a little unfair because Forbes has run a different campaign this year. So, the interesting part to me is the surrogate aspect of it, that neither of the candidates is going out and making these charges themselves or countercharges. What they’re doing is getting other people to stand in for them.

TERENCE SMITH: And you regard them as a surrogate for the Bush camp?

JOHN CARROLL: Well I think the Forbes’ ad is a Forbes’ ad. So they’re using the taxpayers —


JOHN CARROLL: I think the Republican Leadership Council, they’re not officially associated with George Bush but it’s been reported that a lot of the people on there are Bush effort so I think that — supporters. So I think that Bush, although he’s denied that he has anything to do with these, I think it looks like he’s involved in them. I think they’re certainly carrying his water for him.

TERENCE SMITH: David Gergen, how do you think this is playing politically for Governor Bush?

DAVID GERGEN: I think in Iowa, the Forbes’ ad has actually had some impact. At least everything we know is that Steve Forbes is doing better than he was two or three weeks ago in Iowa. He could even pull off a surprise. We’ll have to wait and see. It’s only a few days away, of course.

TERENCE SMITH: A surprise as in win?

DAVID GERGEN: I’m not sure he could win but he might finish awfully strong. A CBS survey had him up at 25 percent and Governor Bush at about 43 (percent). That’s much closer than anybody expected. And it all depends on turnout, as you well know in a caucus state. Forbes has a lot of people that he’s organized with a fair amount of money from his own pocket, of course, to come out on caucus night. It could be closer than anybody expects. I think that ad has added to it. It’s certainly added to the poisonous view between or relationship between Steve Forbes and George W. Bush.

I don’t think there’s any way that Steve Forbes will be on the George Bush ticket or in his cabinet. On the other hand, in New Hampshire, I think that Governor Bush has actually made a little headway had with his ad as well. He had to staunch the flow of blood and he’s clearly trying to be more competitive. What the Bush forces had hoped was that they could get through Iowa, win in New Hampshire and this thing would basically be over and he could go on and really strengthen himself for a fall campaign.

Now he faces the possibility, I think it’s unlikely but the possibility of a surprise in Iowa and the possibility that McCain could do very well in New Hampshire and then he comes — he would then come out of those two not staggering but certainly the race would be much more jumbled. That’s exactly what the Bush people do not want. They’re mounting a very strong offensive to push back. He’s got a strong organization so I would think the governor would do in the next few days could get momentum going again.

TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Jamieson, how about from the McCain point of view? Do you think he’s scoring points with the ad we showed and his others?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, the ad synergized across the whole tax issue. The question is does the Forbes’ ad benefit McCain? It’s interesting to note about the Forbes’ ad that it is very carefully using language. Bush did propose a business and sales tax increase as part of a reform package. It wasn’t enacted but he did propose it, hence he broke the promise. He didn’t break all of his promises, however. He did deliver tax cuts but the local taxes were then increased. The mistake in the McCain ad, however, is to imply that the Bush proposal takes the entire surplus for tax cuts. It doesn’t. It takes the Social Security surplus and reserves it for Social Security. And then it takes a good part of what’s left of the one trillion dollars of the three trillion — two trillion of that with Social Security. Now there’s one trillion left over. And Bush uses a lot more of that, twice as much, in fact, for tax cuts as does McCain.

McCain has reserved a bigger portion, in other words, of the total surplus for Social Security. But it’s not true to suggest that Bush does not reserve money for Social Security. He does. He saves the full two trillion dollars in the Social Security surplus for Social Security. How is it going to play? It depends on whether people understand the context of the debate and how they perceive the accuracy of these ads. Each of these ads is selectively telling the truth. It’s important that people have a context in order to understand the whole issue.

TERENCE SMITH: And what impact, John Carroll, do you these conflicting claims have on the voters?

JOHN CARROLL: Well, I think it’s interesting to look at New Hampshire that is sort of going away from the old traditional image of New Hampshire, the “live tax free or die” New Hampshire that we’ve known for so long. They seem to be moving in a more moderate direction. There are more independents there and the climate is a little more moderate rather than extreme there, the political climate. So I think this is a good gauge of New Hampshire because what John McCain is trying to do is say, “I will give you a tax cut, but I’ll give you a reasonable tax cut.” And he’s really trying to paint George W. Bush’s tax cut as a reckless tax cut. Now, that may or may not be fair, but the perception that gets through to the New Hampshire voters is what’s most important.

And I think the other factor is the Bush people coming back and saying, “John McCain is engaging in class warfare by saying that most of the tax cuts go to the wealthy.” Most tax cuts go to the wealthy all the time. I think in the annals of class warfare this is probably more like a slap fight.


DAVID GERGEN: I think you have to look at the short term and the long term. In the short term, the main message that Governor Bush is getting across to New Hampshire is he wants to bring to the presidency a very large tax cut. That’s playing well among New Hampshire Republicans. Interestingly enough —

TERENCE SMITH: Predictable.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, interestingly enough among Republicans, taxes remain the No. 1 issue, whereas among Democrats it’s way down the list, so it’s helped his campaign in New Hampshire. And if he beats John McCain I think he will do it through the tax issue and his people will see it in those terms. However, in the long term, he’s now coming across to the country as a whole as being primarily about taxes. This was not what he was talking about a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago we came on and had a warm and fuzzy set of advertisements from George Bush — things to appeal to women, things to appeal to independents. He was talking about Social Security, talking about Medicare. The compassion side of George Bush was coming across very strongly.

Now as he moves into the tax area in order to win this primary fight, what you hear is the conservative side of George Bush. And that’s helping him with Republicans but for the long haul for the general campaign, it’s softened him up a little bit. He is not as strong now against Al Gore as he was, say, four weeks ago. His lead over Al Gore has slipped. So that’s the risk he runs. In a general campaign, the Democratic candidate, whether it’s Bradley or Gore, is going to go heavily after him saying this is a reckless tax cut. It’s too big and what you promised New Hampshire Republicans back then may have helped you in New Hampshire but it doesn’t help the country.

TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the tone certainly has changed here. It’s certainly become more acrimonious, more argumentative. How is that playing with the voters? Can you tell?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The evidence that we’ve been gathering from our national surveys suggests that the public does not like personalized attack. You notice that most of this is staying in the political domain and focusing on policy. But it also says that the public doesn’t like attack — that’s misleading. So here’s the question: If the public comes to perceive some of these ads as more misleading than others, will that help shape voting perception? I would agree with David that there’s a shift in the Bush tone. I think the thing that’s important to note about the Forbes’ ad in relationship on Bush is that it speaks to the heart of the Bush claim for the presidency. That is, my record in Texas is the basis for my leadership. I’m the only one who is an elected executive and has this kind of experience. So, the potential for that Forbes’ ad to do damage to Bush, if it is believed, is very high.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Kathleen, David, John, thank you all very much.