War of ads is waged over Clinton budget GOP, Democrats take to the airwaves

July 17, 1993|By Jeff Leeds | Jeff Leeds,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Two Gucci-loafered lobbyists sit in a posh Washington restaurant and worry that President Clinton's already troubled economic plan might actually pass, irking their corporate bosses.

"What if people figure Clinton's plan out?" one asks.

"Relax, have another martini," the other replies. "We own this town."

But not for long, say leaders of the Democratic National Committee, which starts airing a series of radio commercials today denouncing special interests and defending Mr. Clinton's $500 billion deficit reduction package.

Public support for the plan has dwindled in the wake of Republican attacks that have succeeded in painting Mr. Clinton's economic package as a traditional Democratic tax-and-spend approach to the budget. The DNC's response featuring the power lunch and two others were played at a news conference yesterday.

The DNC's airwave assault, part of a larger White House bid to shore up public confidence in the economic plan, is reminiscent of the ads run during the Clinton campaign. But this time the Democrats, whose strength in last year's presidential race was drawn from their ability to head off Republican criticism before it shaped public opinion, are playing catch-up with the GOP.

"The American people don't know or understand the key elements of the president's plan," said Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm.

"We allowed it to be mischaracterized by our opponents."

The Republican National Committee and the GOP-led Citizens for a Sound Economy began running ads as far back as the first House vote on the budget May 27.

A DNC spokesman said the group had spent $165,000 on radio ads in the past three weeks, and Mr. Wilhelm estimated he will spend roughly $100,000 per week until Congress votes on the final budget package. The group has two commercials airing in 30 markets.

The new ads laud deficit reduction and taxing the rich, but they make no mention of Mr. Clinton's proposed energy tax. Two of the new commercials claim that economists estimate the economic plan will create 8 million new jobs, although Mr. Wilhelm did not identify any of the economists.

The commercials have been strategically placed in markets where radio stations have already played GOP ads attacking the budget, including Cleveland, Miami and Augusta, Ga. An RNC spokeswoman said ads deriding Mr. Clinton's budget were airing in 26 states. "It's like a chess game," she said.

Mr. Clinton's effort to win stronger backing for the plan is directed centrally from a White House "boiler room" headed by Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman and White House aide Ricki Seidman.

In addition to the DNC radio blitz, state Democratic parties and constituent groups are also pitching the economic plan with letter-writing campaigns, Mr. Wilhelm said.

The office distributed a memo to administration officials and Democratic lawmakers offering advice and coaching on how to use "body language" to garner support for the budget plan:

"Never forget that the optimism, energy, enthusiasm you project is vital. Even your most cynical critics will walk away impressed with your commitment," urges the talking-points memo. "Your body language, attitude and confidence will be infectious."

The document, entitled "Hallelujah! Change is Coming!" continues: "While you will doubtless be pressed for details beyond these principles, there is nothing wrong with demurring for the moment on the technicalities. . . . Now go forth and spread the good news."

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas dubbed the memo "a script for pep rallies," and Republicans warned that distributing the document could violate federal laws against executive branch lobbying and using tax revenue for partisan efforts.

The House Republican Conference responded to Democratic calls for support on the budget with a parody of the White House memo.

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