Actually, neither supposition is accurate… making the brouhaha surrounding Clint Eastwood’s “Halftime in America” Super Bowl TV commercial for Chrysler yesterday that much more amusing. Ah, the fights we find ourselves getting into. This seems to be a classic case where politicized punditry and social media combine to crystallize speculative reactions and transform them into a news story. How does this kind of a heated public debate over a non-issue happen?
First off, if you, like me, were kept away from the Super Bowl for various reasons (I was grading exams), here’s the ad in question.
The spot, reminiscent of last year’s Super Bowl spot “Imported From Detroit” featuring rapper Eminem, continues a narrative that lifts up the struggles and successes of the American auto industry as a metaphor for the indefatigable spirit of America. Here’s last year’s ad:
So what makes this year’s spot so controversial? Three key variables: recent economic data regarding gradually improving economic conditions (including a rebounded auto industry), the upcoming presidential election featuring an incumbent candidate, and another metaphor otherwise appropriate for the Big Game occasion: “halftime.”
The Chrysler ad appeared during halftime at the Super Bowl — thus, a message about “halftime” during halftime, in which Eastwood makes explicit references to the current stage of the game, was designed to get the attention of the Big Game audience. But as Eastwood emerges from the darkened tunnel into the dim light, it’s clear the ad won’t be about football.
The message, filled with images of America looking both somber and hopeful, quiet and strong, backed up by a undercurrent soundtrack of slow, rich strings, and delivered with Eastwood’s steely visage and trademark Dirty Harry growl, is clearly designed to be an inspirational address about a nation that is struggling but will eventually prevail due to its own grit and the unity of purpose shared by its people. Not unlike the pep talks happening in the Super Bowl locker rooms at halftime, we imagine. The ad references the struggle of Detroit (and, implicitly but obviously, the American auto industry), and suggests that, because “we all pulled together,” the industry has made a comeback that models what the nation as a whole can do.
So how did this get political? First, let’s run the numbers and stake the positions, according to a Politico report:
- The American auto industry was faced with financial crisis in 2008, and both GM and Chrysler accepted billions of dollars in assistance from the federal government as they filed for bankruptcy — $17.4 billion approved by President George W. Bush, and then nearly $60 billion approved by President Obama.
- These bailouts were opposed by many political leaders — including Mitt Romney, who wrote a now infamous New York Times op-ed piece in 2008 entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” which claimed that stringing it along with bailout money would mean disaster.
If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.
Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.
- The Department of the Treasury has now estimated that the auto industry bailouts saved about 1 million jobs.
- In his State of the Union address on January 24, 2012, Obama reported on the Detroit turnaround, observing,
GM is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs. We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.
- This address was followed by an “unscheduled” visit to the Washington Auto Show last Tuesday, January 31.
- Faced with election year backlash, Romney spokesperson reported last Tuesday, January 31,
Events have proved Governor Romney exactly right. . . . As he said back in 2008, a managed bankruptcy was the right course for the automakers, and he is thrilled to see that they have successfully re-emerged from the bankruptcy process as he expected they would. It is unfortunate that the government first attempted a bailout, which was precisely as unsuccessful as he predicted, cost taxpayers billions, and left the government improperly entangled in the private sector.
So with the Michigan primary coming up on February 28, favorite son Romney (born in Detroit, son of former Governor George W. Romney) is faced with being on the wrong side of the auto industry bailout while working to earn the votes of many who directly benefited from that bailout. Dicey proposition, as is. But Romney is well positioned to dominate the vote in Michigan…
…or was, until Super Bowl Sunday. The Chrysler ad implicitly suggests that the nation as a whole (via, presumably, the bailouts) assisted Detroit in a time of need, and is now reaping the dividends. This message, incidentally, not only appears to endorse the wisdom of the bailout advocated by Obama despite stiff GOP and Tea Party opposition, but also comes on the heels of recent news three days ago that, despite the predictions of economists that unemployment would increase slightly in January, the unemployment rate actually dropped for the fifth month in a row, to 8.3%, after an increase of 243,000 jobs last month.
This news caused the Dow Jones and NASDAQ indexes to surge with optimism — and could well be the source of consternation for GOP strategists, fearing that they may lose their core campaign issue before Election Day. An article in Slate the day before the Super Bowl suggests that, if the rate of job increases continues (admittedly not guaranteed by any means), an unemployment rate below 7.8% (where it was in January 2009, when Obama took office) will make it tougher to sell the claim that Obama has made things worse rather than better. This possibility is coupled with Romney’s snafu regarding his purported lack of concern over the “very poor,” as well as his economic elite status, his 14% marginal tax rate (lower than most middle-income Americans), and the hype over his history with Bain Capital that dismantled companies, in an election year when income inequality is part of the national conversation. It’s getting tougher to make the case that the Republicans are the party to save the vulnerable working class.
And then the ad came out. Karl Rove was apoplectic.
I was, frankly, offended by it. I’m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the President of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best-wishes of the management which is benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they’ll never pay back.
Incidentally, FOX News ran a story today discussing how, while it used stock footage of Detroit in the ad, original content for the ad was not actually shot in the Motor City.
Republicans protest that the ad is a de facto campaign advocacy spot for Obama’s re-election to a second term. In addition to the implicit endorsement of the auto industry bailout, one can look to the language of the script for evidence in support of this interpretation:
It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.
It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.
The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.
I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.
But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.
All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win?
Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.
This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.
Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.
Let’s break down the probable interpretation by Rove and others in the GOP:
- “halftime”: an election between President Obama’s first term and a possible second;
- “both teams . . . what they can do to win this game in the second half”: the parties are competing over who will win the election and serve in the “second term”;
- “Detroit . . . is fighting again” because “we all pulled together”: the aforementioned success of the auto industry due to the federal bailouts;
- “the fog of division, discord, and blame” [stated while the ad shows a fragment of an apparently angered news personality shouting and pointing in slow motion, followed by a shot of picketing protesters outside what appears to be a capitol building]: FOX News is stirring up the division with angry media, and the people are angry at their Congress, currently dominated by Republicans;
- “we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one”: the American people need to do what is “right,” consistent with the above;
- “our second half is about to begin”: a call for a second Obama term.
As a rhetorical critic sensitive to the layered meanings of strategic language, I actually see where Rove is coming from here. And so did prominent Democrats: White House Spokesperson Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “Saving the America Auto Industry: Something Eminem and Clint Eastwood can agree on,” while Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted, “Powerful spot. Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?” This response to the ad by Obama’s people provides some level of justification for the negative response by some Republicans.
However, there’s a serious flaw in this logic, and it is embodied in the ad’s narrator: Clint Eastwood ain’t nobody’s Obama spokesperson. Let’s examine the evidence:
Eastwood has been a Republican since he voted for Eisenhower in 1952, was elected the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California as a Republican in 1986, was considered as a possible VP by George H.W. Bush in 1992, and supported John McCain in 2008.
He has also publicly expressed his disapproval with Obama as a president, particularly on matters of policy governance, as he explained to Katie Couric in October of 2010:
Eastwood also opposed the 2008-10 bailouts, as well as related stimulus plans, as he explained to the Los Angeles Times last November:
‘I’ve always been very liberal when it comes to people thinking for themselves,’ said Eastwood, who supports gay marriage, abortion rights and environmental protection. ‘But I’m a big hawk on cutting the deficit. I was against the stimulus thing too. We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.’
I just want to say that the spin stops with you guys, and there is no spin in that ad. On this I am certain.
l am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message about just about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK.
I am not supporting any politician at this time.
Chrysler to their credit didn’t even have cars in the ad.
Anything they gave me for it went for charity.
If any Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it.
Long story short (too late), this is a fascinating but ultimately empty example of how most anything can be politicized in an election year — particularly accelerated by cable TV news and social media. But, bottom line, Eastwood is too wealthy, powerful, and strong of conviction to be an unwitting shill for a political message with which he disagrees.
Are you gonna try to tell Dirty Harry he’s a stooge for the Democrats? Do you feel lucky, punk?