Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Negative ads on Topinka's Republican policies work but could use some improvements

I like the Blagojevich campaign's current 15-second commercials about the gubernatorial campaign. They are substantive, punchy and not anything like the way-over-the-top, unfair attack ads that the Oberweis campaign ran against Topinka.

The Oberweis campaign just ran commercials with Topinka polkaing (polka-ing?) with George Ryan and then just lied by saying "Topinka ordered staff to work on political campaigns" -- an unwarranted lie without any real attribution that ought to be illegal. Why didn't Oberweis get more flak for those?

On the other hand, Blagojevich's commercials are substantive, fair, issue-oriented but aggressive. There are two of them.

The first is about Topinka's opposition to an assault weapons ban, one of the gun control advocates main goals and a fiercely fought legislative battle every year (with the exception of this year, where a 'gun truce' has been imposed by the legislative leaders to avoid the bloody trench warfare of gun bills on third reading). Treasurer Topinka argued that the definition of an assault weapon is nebulous enough to potentially include a rolling pin, and the commercial makes her look a little silly. Playing off one of her primary campaign themes of "Thinka Topinka", the commercial's tag line is "What's she thinking?"

The Blagojevich campaign has laid out these commercials on a separate website at which is a nicely transparent method of being accountable for a 'negative' ad campaign.

I think that's a very strong commercial and message.

The other commercial isn't so strong, and it's taken me a while to figure out why I think it doesn't resonate as well.

The second commercial is about Topinka's support for the "Bush tax cuts" that lowered the marginal federal income tax rates and the capital gains tax rate. The most important tax cut in terms of lost revenue to the federal government (helping to create that $400 billion annual deficit, which gives China more power over us every year since we can't pay our own bills) is the tax cut on the highest incomes. Until 2001, the tax on income above $300,000 was 39.6% and because there are ever-more very high incomes, that generates a ton of money. After Bush took over and the GOP Congress secured control, the top tax rate was cut to 35%. That's the biggest deal of the Bush tax cuts and the dumbest cut, because anyone earning more than $300,000 can afford to pay the roughly 40% while the rest of us can't afford the higher cost of everything else when the government is broke (less student aid for college, less renewable energy, less support to state and local governments, etc.).

That message isn't easy to convey. The commercial calls it the 'millionaire's tax cut' because, in combination with the repeal of the estate tax and the cut on capital gains, the people who make more than a million dollars get tens of thousands off their federal tax bills. It's a stupid policy that panders to the base of the GOP (rich people and those who think they will be) and should be reversed. But it's tough to communicate in 15 seconds the reality of the federal Republican economic policy of forcing regular, working people to pay more money while enriching the wealthy.

The commercial also lays out a great wedge issue: the minimum wage. This is a great issue for Democrats and a horrible one for Republicans, because most people know it's absurd to expect someone to make a living on $6.50 an hour (Illinois' minimum wage). Very few Republicans support raising the minimum wage, while very few Democrats oppose it. Topinka called the latest proposal "a giveaway plan" and the Democrats have proposed raising the wage to $7.50. (Some Republicans rightfully question why we don't just raise the minimum wage to $7.50 before the end of the 2006 legislative session, but hey, it's good to have an issue....)

Why doesn't the message about Bush's millionaire tax cut resonate as much as the minimum wage or the assault weapons ban? I think the answer lays in how Republicans talk about taxes.

I saw on C-Span some Republican candidate talk about an uber-consultant's (I think it was Grover Norquist or perhaps Karl Rove) axiom on taxes: never mention a number. Republicans talk about cutting taxes generally. They don't talk about which taxes they want to cut and how much money people will make based on their actual income levels. If they did that, it would be very clear that the wealthy get the money while the rest of us get Chinese-financed debt and diminished public services.

That suggests that Democrats should always talk about numbers when we talk about taxes. Blagojevich (and every other Democrat) should always talk about the Bush tax cuts for income above $300,000 (to the extent it helps to remind Illinois voters about federal policy that Topinka presumably still supports).

And a coda: it also means that progressives who want to stop cutting higher education and stop condemning kids in poor suburbs and rural towns to crappy schools that shut down at 2 in the afternoon and extend the school year to 200 days need to talk about a 5% state income tax to fund this investment, instead of our current 3% income tax. Now that we know Blagojevich is against a 5% income tax, and that we'll need a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly to pass a 5% income tax, we need to clearly and consistently make the case for a 5% income tax (and not just a vague idea of 'raising state taxes'). Let's talk about numbers!

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