Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When It Was Morning in America ...

"It's morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?"

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(Tomorrow I will write about Ronald Reagan's foreign–policy commercial from the 1984 campaign, "Bear in the Woods.")
I often hear people — on both sides of the political fence — lamenting the absence of civil, positive campaign advertising (by which they almost always mean TV advertising). On Sunday, I wrote about what I feel was the first of the negative ads used in a presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy girl" commercial in 1964.

That was the Pandora's box that unleashed all the negative advertising that most voters lament today. They aren't exaggerating. It is true that ads are decidedly negative today. Campaign advertising almost always promotes a negative image of a candidate's opponent, seldom a positive image of the candidate himself (or herself). Candidates from both sides of the aisle apparently believe the only way to win is to tear down the opponent. It's been that way for a long time; sometimes it seems it has never been otherwise.

That is the ironic part of all this, isn't it? Candidates believe they can't win without attacking their opponents, and voters say they are turned off by such a spectacle. For the time being, at least, I am inclined to believe that we will continue to be overwhelmed by negative advertising — at least until such tactics are clearly repudiated at the ballot box.

Political advertising on television, of course, is a comparatively new form of advertising, newer than radio, much newer than print. It's been around since 1952, but, in many ways, it was still evolving when Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale faced off in the 1984 presidential campaign.

Advertising in presidential campaigns was rather primitive — but generally not negative — in the 1950s — but, by 1964, a hardball form of negative advertising emerged in the form of Johnson's "Daisy girl" commercial.

That commercial only aired once, but it influenced the election in many ways — and is still discussed in conversations about political advertising. Perhaps its reputation for having helped the Johnson campaign led to the increasingly frequent use of negative advertising in the elections that followed.

I'm sure the Reagan campaign used some negative advertising in 1984, but I honestly don't remember any. That campaign is mostly remembered for two commercials that focused on the administration's record in its first four years. His opponent was never mentioned in either.

One was called "Prouder, Stronger, Better," and it was developed (in part) and narrated by San Francisco ad man Hal Riney — but it is more popularly remembered as "Morning in America," a phrase from the opening sentence.

Democrats (and I was one at the time) seethed over the commercial. I noticed that Democrats' complaints focused not on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the claims but rather on the merits of the production. They couldn't argue with the facts — compared to circumstances just before the last presidential election, unemployment was down; so were gas prices and interest rates.

Those are the kinds of things an incumbent wants to talk about in campaign commercials. It isn't necessary to focus on the negative if the incumbent can say things have been better on his watch — and the numbers back him up. Those numbers weren't particularly good — but they were better than four years earlier.

In fact, the only thing that could be called negative was the final sentence — Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

And that really was the point for which a case had been made. The commercial was saying the current administration had made good on its promises. The president's opponent had been part of the previous administration. The Reagan campaign saw the choice as being between staying the course (to borrow Reagan's famous campaign pitch during the 1982 midterm elections) and going back to the policies of the previous administration.

That was a pretty effective way to frame the choice, and more than 58% of those who voted agreed with Reagan.

It's the kind of case every incumbent would like to make — that things have been better under his or her watch than they were under his/her predecessor — but few incumbents can make.

Was Reagan lucky, as Democrats claimed? Or was he good, as Republicans insisted? I have heard it said that it is better to be lucky than good, and maybe that was the case with Ronald Reagan. A president's critics always seem to be convinced that he is leading the country to disaster, and Reagan had no shortage of critics. If he had run for re–election in 1982, there is no doubt that he would have lost. His approval ratings before and after the election languished in the lower 40s.

But conditions changed considerably in the next two years — and Reagan's approval rating just before the 1984 election was precisely what his ultimate share of the popular vote turned out to be — 58%. Reagan certainly was lucky in his timing

If "Morning in America" came across as kinda corny, well, it was. Positive ads lack the drama of negative ads. Perhaps that is the price to be paid for getting what you want.

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