A few weeks ago, the Bush campaign launched a negative television ad that many Democratic consultants thought was pretty clever. It featured ancient, goofy Keystone Kops footage and suggested, not too subtly, that John Kerry was pretty goofy too: he supported a 50¢-a-gal. gas tax. Leave aside the fact that this was not quite accurate--Kerry's support for the tax was fleeting, theoretical and a decade past--the ad was sharp, different-looking, sort of humorous. The consultants assumed it would cut through the info- smog of political-message mongering, that it would make Kerry seem laughably out of touch.
Did it? Perhaps a little. More people think that Kerry will raise their taxes than did a month ago. Kerry's "unfavorables" are higher than they were before the Bush campaign put $50 million worth of advertising on the air. But the larger dynamic of the race hasn't changed. It was pretty much neck and neck a month ago. It's very much neck and neck now. And you have to wonder about the impact of all those ads on the President: in a very serious year, he has allowed his candidacy to appear sarcastic and frivolous. In fact, most negative advertising seems sort of dumb and old-fashioned these days, especially when it's practiced in the crude, the-other-guy-will-eat-your-children manner favored by both the Bush campaign and liberal interest groups. "Bush has been running a 1988-model campaign," said a Kerry strategist, referring to the ton of sludge Bush the Elder successfully dumped on poor Michael Dukakis' head during that dreadful presidential year. "They assumed that if they dumped stuff on John Kerry's head, he'd collapse. He hasn't."
But Kerry isn't exactly thriving either. His campaign is experiencing something of a silent spring. Part of this is beyond his control and possibly beneficial to his cause: Iraq and the 9/11 commission have dominated the news and kept the President on the defensive. Another part has been tactical, intentional: Kerry's recent priorities have been fund raising (he brought in $13 million last week alone) and taking time to develop a careful strategy for the general-election campaign. "We're not going to allow George Bush or the press to dictate the pace of our campaign," an aide said. An advertising blitz will begin next week, and a series of substantive speeches has been launched. The last was on fiscal responsibility; the next will be about the "jobs and the industries of the future." But I suspect there's another reason for Kerry's decided lack of fizz since the primaries ended. This is just not a very fizzy candidacy.