Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bear in the Woods

"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?"

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(Yesterday I wrote about Ronald Reagan's domestic–policy commercial from the 1984 campaign, informally known as "Morning in America.")

The Reagan campaign commercial of which I wrote yesterday is the one that most people remember from that campaign. Economic issues played such a critical role in Reagan's victory in 1980, and an advertisement illustrating how much better things were (by comparison) four years later was quite effective.

But I have always thought the better commercial was the one on foreign policy called "The Bear." It very cleverly illustrated the differences in thought regarding Russia (symbolized by a bear since at least the 17th century) and how much of a threat it was to the United States.

Again, Reagan's opponent wasn't mentioned by name.

But it very neatly summarized Reagan's philosophy of "peace through strength:"

"Since no one can really be sure who's right," adman/narrator Hal Riney said, "isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?"

That is the kind of question that never really seems to go out of style. America is today the world's last remaining superpower, but it has been cutting back on its active military. Consequently, many Americans live in fear that a rogue country like Iran or a terrorist group will gain possession of nuclear weapons.

I think it is safe to say that, if the party in the White House chooses to run a foreign policy commercial in the eight weeks before this year's midterm elections, it will not focus on the president's foreign–policy successes with crises brewing on virtually every continent on the globe — even though the president is not on anyone's ballot this year.

Anyway, the 1984 advertisement did seek to define Reagan and his foreign policy record, and it did so quite well. It reassured skittish voters that Reagan was not the reckless warmonger his critics made him out to be, that he favored a strong defense as a way to keep the peace, that such an approach was prudent in the world of 1984.

That sounded reasonable to voters, who had reached their own conclusions on whether Reagan was reckless after nearly four years of his leadership. Available evidence suggested otherwise to them.

The 1984 campaign really was the most rare of opportunities for an incumbent, it seems to me. Conditions were so much better than they had been four years earlier that Reagan could define himself instead of allowing his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to define him, and frame the debates in ways that were favorable for that definition.

The "Bear in the Woods" ad is a perfect example of that. In almost every modern political campaign for an office in the federal government, an advertisement on foreign policy — by candidates in either party — will be designed to reinforce negative perceptions/stereotypes about the opposition. But in 1984, the Reagan campaign was able to focus on political philosophy and explain to voters why the president believed his policy was the wisest choice.

It really was a brilliant piece of political advertising.

The Reagan camp had months to prepare the ads, too. There was no opposition to Reagan's bid for renomination so his staff was able to fine–tune the advertisements for the fall campaign under virtually no pressure — at least by campaign advertising standards.

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