What Makes An Ad Harsh

Just what do we mean when we call a campaign ad "negative" or "harsh" or even "brutal"? That question is raised by an ad released today by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, hitting Mitt Romney about a steel plant that Bain Capital closed in Kansas City. In the ad, Joe Soptic, a worker at the plant, tells how when he and his fellow workers lost their jobs, they also lost their health insurance. His wife got sick, but because they had no insurance she didn't see a doctor until it was too late, and she died of cancer three weeks after finally being diagnosed. While he doesn't actually say "Mitt Romney killed my wife," he ends the ad by saying, "I do not think that Mitt Romney realizes what he's done to anyone. And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned." Let's take a look, then we'll break it down:

The first question is whether it's accurate. Is Romney responsible for what happened to this company? Although its eventual bankruptcy happened after Romney left Bain, the decisions that laid the groundwork for that outcome, particularly the fact that Bain loaded the company up with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, were made while Romney was still CEO. So it seems pretty fair to put a substantial portion of the responsibility for GST's demise on him. The conclusion that Soptic makes—that Romney doesn't care about the people left behind—is obviously a matter of opinion. And while one can never know if his wife would have survived if she had still had health insurance, there's no doubt that when the people at GST lost their jobs, they lost their insurance too. There's nothing unfair or inaccurate about pointing out that when a company goes out of business, the effects on the people who work there are devastating, and include more than just a paycheck.

You could argue, however, that the emotional content of the ad is so overwhelming that questions of accuracy are almost beside the point. Let's take a different example, the infamous "Willie Horton" ad from 1988. As it happens, that ad was filled with small inaccuracies. But even if it hadn't been, it still would problematic. The ad's target was people's fear of crime, and specifically white people's fear of scary black men. The clear intent was to play on racist feelings. And the idea that Michael Dukakis would go to the White House and unleash a horde of dark-skinned psychopaths upon America's white women was plainly absurd.

There's no denying that this ad is emotionally powerful and meant to convince you that Mitt Romney doesn't care about the fate of ordinary people. We can disagree about whether that's accurate. But there is a direct and highly relevant consideration to the topic of this ad, even though it's not mentioned. When the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented in 2014, what happened to the Soptics won't have to happen to anyone again. If you lose your job, you'll be able to get coverage, first since insurance companies won't be able to deny you because of a pre-existing condition, and second because an unemployed person would be eligible for subsidies for private insurance or Medicaid to make that coverage affordable. And Mitt Romney wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. He's said over and over again that he'll start working on that on his first day in the White House. So presuming Romney keeps his promise, that means what happened to the Soptics is much more likely to happen to more Americans. What Mitt Romney believes in his heart about those people is unknowable, but his policy choices pretty clearly demonstrate that he isn't concerned about them, or that whatever concern he has is outweighed by other considerations, like keeping the Republican base happy.

So yes, this ad uses a tragic personal story to illustrate its larger political point. But "harsh"? "Brutal"? I don't think so.

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