Heading into what many consider the last weekend for him to block Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's march toward the Democratic presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas on Friday produced two bitter attack commercials. They were countered immediately by two Clinton ads, including one that mounted a questionable assault.
The ads will air in Illinois and Michigan, sites of two key primaries on Tuesday. In one ad, Tsongas suggests that Clinton is hiding things in his past, then shifts to a criticism of his record in Arkansas. In the other, Tsongas suggests that Clinton is making so many promises that the economic pie is too small to support them.
Clinton, meanwhile, attacks Tsongas on a capital gains tax cut proposal that in truth is not that different from Clinton's own. The ad also blasts former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. for his flat-tax proposal, a sign of Clinton's fear that Brown may be threatening Clinton in Michigan.
The second Clinton ad is an attempt to defend the governor's record and to imply that he is under attack. In truth, Clinton was the first candidate to launch an attack ad in this campaign, and he also escalated the attacks against Tsongas as the campaign progressed.
Brown, too, has begun airing an ad attacking Clinton, Tsongas and President Bush for supporting the "fast track" negotiations for a free trade agreement with Mexico, and linked the issue to the closing of the Willow Run General Motors plant in Michigan.
Faced with Clinton's superior organization, financing and his apparent advantage with middle-class and ethnic voters, the Tsongas campaign felt it had a difficult choice this week.
It considered running a positive ad campaign in Illinois and Michigan and perhaps "going down with a noble stand on principle," according to one adviser. But the campaign decided it lacked the money and time to reach enough voters with a positive message, particularly since Clinton was already airing an unadulterated attack on Tsongas.
Political professionals believe explaining who a candidate is and what he stands for in a positive way requires multiple ads. In a short time, it is considered more effective to raise doubts about one's opponent.
After Clinton's sweep of the Southern primaries last Tuesday, Tsongas told reporters: "We have to be tougher. The negative advertising and distortions of my record had an impact." When asked if this was inconsistent with his earlier stance against such ads, Tsongas smiled ruefully and said: "You'd be surprised how you can evolve in this business."
The first Tsongas ad shows two actors portraying workers standing in a factory. "Hear the latest?" one worker asks. "What has Bill Clinton got to hide that's really bad. . . . It's his record. . . . What I saw in the paper--he's increased the tax on gas, increased the tax on groceries."
"Wait a minute," says the second worker. "He says he's for the working people."
"Forget about what he says. Look--worker safety--dead last in the country . . . (protecting the environment)--worst in the country."
"What about schools?" says the second worker.
"Still down near the bottom."
The ad ends with the tag line, "Bill Clinton: What he did for Arkansas is what he'll do for America."
The ad is misleading. While Clinton's record on the environment is mixed, he has received praise from some environmental groups for making progress. And while Arkansas schools are still not among the best in the country, Clinton has made some remarkable gains, including improving curricula and raising the number of students going to college. The second Tsongas ad, which will begin Saturday in Illinois and Michigan, shows a pie set down on a table and people grabbing uneven pieces. An announcer intones: "Bill Clinton . . . promises everybody slices of the pie. Lots of political promises. Lots of special interests. But not much pie. What's left for you or our kids?"
Then, over pictures of Tsongas, the narrator says: "Paul Tsongas doesn't make promises. He's made a commitment, not pie-in-the-sky promises. Fundamental change and investment in the future, not politics as usual."
Actually, both Clinton and Tsongas offer fairly deep changes in the direction of the Democratic Party and offer specifics in that direction.
A third Tsongas ad that began Thursday says Tsongas "tells the truth" and has "ideas to make our economy grow . . . ideas and the guts to make them stick. He's no Bill Clinton, that's for sure."
Clinton's new ad hits both Brown and Tsongas. An announcer begins: "Who's going to fight for working families? Jerry Brown?"
Then, over a picture of the former California governor, the announcer says: "Citizens for Tax Justice says Jerry Brown's flat-tax proposal would cut taxes for the rich by 50%, raise taxes for the middle class and create a new 13% national sales tax."
Then it turns on Tsongas. "He proposes another capital gains tax break for the rich, and up to a 50-cent hike in gas taxes over 10 years for the rest of us. Only Bill Clinton is fighting to make the rich pay their fair share."
The attack on Brown accurately characterizes the analysis of the Citizens for Tax Justice, a labor-funded research and advocacy group. But the group's analysis makes a series of judgments about Brown's tax plan that are based only on estimates, which could be wrong.
In the assault on Tsongas, Clinton fails to mention that he, too, advocates a capital gains tax cut, and that he has raised gas taxes in his own state.
The second new Clinton ad, which will run in both states, begins with a narrator and text saying: "Why are they attacking Bill Clinton? Politics. Pure and ugly." It then goes on to outline Clinton's record in Arkansas and concludes with, "A record of achievement unmatched in the last decade."
The implication in the ad, and in virtually all of Clinton's public appearances, that Tsongas initiated the attacks, is false. Clinton was the first Democrat to air a commercial that attacked a fellow Democrat.