Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ads of the Damned: John McCain, "Complete the Danged Fence"

This seemed to win the ire of many conservatives a few days ago:

Some of this anger is a little overstated. This is McCain's fourth TV spot of the campaign and third specifically dealing with immigration (here one, and here's another). Like the other two, the spot recites the details of the "McCain/Kyl plan," but this one seems to have really irritated conservative bloggers.


The answer that seems to run most commonly in the threads of the offended bloggers is that McCain once supported "amnesty," or at least a version of immigration reform that they disagreed with. If this was really the case, then why didn't raise the issue when the first immigration ads came out. That may be the policy subtext behind the anger, but the filmic text of the ad itself also opens McCain up to criticism of being phony in way politics flip-floppery just doesn't.

Take a look at the fine print of this frame:
It reads "Paul Babeu appearing only in his personal capacity." Well, then why is he addressed by his title "Sheriff Paul Babeu" when we first meet him and what in God's name is he doing wearing his uniform? Sheriff Bableu is a validator. I'm sure there are legal reasons for the disclaimer, but it's juxtaposition next to an figure who's authority McCain clearly wishes to siphon is a little too obvious.

Next is the small point raised by a commenter at Hit and Run: Nogales isn't in Sherrif Babeu's jurisdiction of Pinal County, which isn't a boarder county. I'm sure that most Arizonans would pick up on this. This discrepancy isn't to say that non-boarder counties don't have immigration issues they need to contend with (we know all to well that they do), but what it does do is create a skewed sense of geography for the viewer, one that suggests McCain doesn't really know his own state all that well.

Moving on we have Allahpunidt's criticism of McCain costume: "John “Goddamned Fence” McCain marching along the border in a badass Navy baseball cap looking like he could choke out a coyote with his bare hands." I've always wondered about the baseball cap myself, which has been a McCain staple in outdoors setting since he was treated for skin cancer some years back. I've never been sure if this was a way to make him look more rugged, more "common man," more youthful or was just part of his doctor's orders to stay out of the sun and was a better alternative than a Michael Jackson-esque umbrella. Regardless, it should be obvious why the cap usually says Navy.

The spot does a good visual job of transforming the boarder fence into something that's more than just scenery and almost into another actor. Just watch how the fence visually evolves of the course of the first frames of the spot.

Here it is off to the side, helping to establish the location:

Then we have a shot of McCain and Babeu walking closer to it, as if it's the third member of their party while the two men are talking about the horrible thing illegal immigrants are doing to Arizonans:It's no accident that the frame changes just as McCain says "home invasions" to a close up of a porous and seemingly incomplete fence:Granted, the space between those rusty beams might actually be narrow enough to keep out even an anorexic supermodel, but it doesn't look like an effective fence. There's a two-fold implication here: 1.) that all illegal immigration is a form of "home invasion" against the country, and 2.) that this anemic-looking fence is the only thing keeping back people who want to invade your home at night to rob you.

Just to reinforce the point, the boarder fence actually becomes almost negligible as Sheriff Babeu notes that half of illegal immigrants come through Arizona and we get this image:

Now that's a fence that wouldn't keep out a tumbleweed.

There are a number of issues one can find fault with in the script. The first is the minor curse McCain uses to describe the fence. As Allahpundit points out above, its a callback to a stronger phrase used by McCain several years ago in, of all places, Milwaukee. It's very Mavericky language and reminiscent of a past McCain's been trying to distance himself from lately. The whole point of the ad is to demonstrate how in sync McCain is with the rest of the GOP on immigration. It's fairly obvious that he's trying to channel the anger so many conservatives feel about the issue, but it misses the mark.

The very last line of the script before the disclaimer is even less subtle. "Senator, you're one of us," the sheriff says just before the frame freezes on a close up of McCain. There's just nothing natural about that exchange. Once it's said, it feels like the entire spot has been McCain fishing for a compliment.

There's a weird blend of strong visual imagery and fightin' words that never really seems to add up in this case. A lot of this has to do with incumbency. McCain's been Arizona's senator for decades now and walking in front of a incomplete fences that apparently can't stop an army of impoverished third-worlders doesn't exactly scream strength, even thought that's clearly the point of the ad. McCain's should be bragging about having done everything thing human possible to strengthen boarder security, but here he's pointing out the boarder's weaknesses. If JD Hayworth ran this exact same ad the context would be completely different and it would probably be rather brilliant, but as it stands, it just doesn't seem to work.

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