When the Mud Flies This Time, Bush Can’t Duck

President Bush recently created a furor by using images of 9/11 victims being removed from the World Trade Center in his first flight of reelection campaign commercials. Perhaps understandably and predictably, many survivors and relatives of those killed called it an inappropriate expropriation of tragedy for political purposes.

Although I respect the strongly held feelings of victims’ families, I happen not to be one of those Democrats who piled on.

I actually thought the TV ads, with their gauzy, morning-in-America ambience, were quite well done.

But I submit that the president has an altogether different — and ultimately much more damaging — problem with his commercials.

His positive spots had been on the air for barely a week when his campaign began firing electronic cruise missiles at presumed Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry. And every single one of those bash-and-trash ads, thanks to the new federal campaign finance law passed in 2002, now has to include Bush’s own Good Housekeeping seal of approval. “I’m George Bush,” the president says on each one, “and I approve this message.”

The question of how to identify to viewers who is sponsoring political ads, most of which flash by in 30 seconds, has always been a subject of concern among campaign and media watchdogs who don’t believe candidates should be able to blanket the airwaves with anonymous, and potentially misleading, attacks.

Prior to 1992, most candidates’ TV spots — particularly those blasting an opponent — carried a disclaimer in type the size of the fine print on an insurance policy, which was on screen for a nanosecond.

In December 1991, however, the Federal Communications Commission handed down a ruling that all political commercials must contain a readily readable sponsorship tagline clearly indicating who paid for the spot. The commission required that the tagline — like “Paid for by Clinton/Gore ’96 Primary Committee Inc.” or “Paid for by the Republican National Committee” — must fill up 4% of the screen for at least four full seconds.

The FCC also ruled at that time that every spot must have a voice-over to accompany the visual version.

But the major political parties howled, and campaign media consultants on both sides of the aisle yowled, and ultimately the commission backed down.

But now the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, passed in 2002 and signed — reluctantly — by Bush, has thrown an even bigger monkey wrench into the works. It requires all TV ads paid for by a candidate for federal office to include an image of that candidate as well as his or her own voice, indicating that he or she has approved the spot.

Up until this change, the long-standing practice in political advertising was to avoid like the plague associating your candidate with attack ads.

The old visual disclaimer requirement had to be met, of course, but the identifiable image and voice of the actual candidate was left out whenever possible so that voters wouldn’t identify him or her with the nastiness.

Mud, it was felt, was best thrown anonymously — because even though it works, voters don’t really like it.

Now, however, Bush and Kerry both must stand by the content of their ads.

For Bush, the first sitting president in American history to be required to put his personal imprimatur on all ads aired by his campaign, this could be a serious problem.

Most incumbent presidents, to one degree or another, have used surrogates to attack their opponent and have kept a bright line between the positive, feel-good ads on which they appeared and the negative ones, on which they didn’t.

The president’s unprecedented campaign war chest, almost as big as the federal deficits he’s spawned, likely will mean an equally unprecedented eight-month air war of slash-and-burn ads against Kerry.

No one alive really knows what cumulative effect will result from the president of the United States endorsing — on air and in person — all of his negative ads. But I suspect it could be corrosive and very damaging to this particular president’s obvious intent to run as a larger-than-life, wartime president. Can that image be sustained when voters see and hear Bush vouching thousands of times for his own attack commercials? Or will there be a backlash?

Kerry, of course, will be running his own negative ads with his picture and voice on them. But Kerry isn’t a sitting president trying to maintain a “stature gap.” And challengers are generally given more slack by voters to go after an incumbent.

Further, Kerry will be the beneficiary of millions of dollars worth of negative, soft-money ads run by independent groups that don’t involve him at all.

Were I the Bush camp, I would even worry about the Texas-transplant president ending up evoking the perpetrator in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” resembling more the slasher-in-chief than the commander-in-chief.

If so, will voters salute?