Debt Ceiling Debate Sparks New Round Of TV Ad Wars

Jul 18, 2011
Originally published on July 18, 2011 9:33 pm

The debate over raising the debt ceiling has largely taken place in the halls of Congress and the White House briefing room. But there is another front in the battle — a war on the air. Advocacy groups from each side of the issue are spending millions on commercials.

The ads are evidence of the latest trend in political advertising, according to Ken Goldstein, president the Virginia-based consulting group CMAG, which tracks political ads. "I think we used to be in a world where election ads were aired during an election time, and lobbying or issue ads were aired during non-election time," he says. "I think those lines have completely blurred."

Probably the biggest debt-ceiling ad buy, $20 million, is part of a summer campaign by the group Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove, to help Republican congressional candidates. Crossroads is targeting Democrats in swing states, and it's also running a national ad, called "Wake Up," in which a woman in a nightgown is seen getting up in the middle of the night.

"Sometimes it's hard to sleep. I'm worried, I guess, about our jobs, our home — how everything costs more, even Mom's health care," the woman says. "How will we ever retire?"

Steven Law, president of Crossroads GPS, says that in this ad, the group is trying to provide some context. "Most people don't think every day about the debt limit," he says. "In fact, in our focus groups, we found that very, very few people were even aware of the idea of the debt limit.

"So we wanted to provide some context," he continues. "How did we get here? How did the spending that has happened over the last several years trigger this? And what are the policy choices that people need to start to address to fix it?"

The left-leaning MoveOn.org meanwhile is going after what it believes are vulnerable Republicans, like freshman Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania.

"Rep. Barletta won't budge," the ad says. "It seems like he'd rather see our families fail, our economy fail, and our entire country fail than simply stand up to the GOP's greedy friends."

MoveOn.org has paid for ads in three congressional districts, including Barletta's — a buy of some $35,000. It's also cut ads running on the Web aimed at other Republicans.

Justin Ruben, the group's executive director, says the campaign is part of a grass-roots effort. "Our theory is basically that if the most vulnerable Republicans start getting flooded with pressure from their constituents, that they may put enough pressure on their leadership that is kind of leading the country over a cliff right now, to get them to back down," he says.

Other Republicans are being targeted by conservatives. The Club for Growth has taken out ads aimed at some in the GOP, like Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a six-term veteran, warning him not to vote for a debt-ceiling increase.

"After 35 long years," the ad says, "tell Richard Lugar: No more debt."

The anti-tax group is backing a primary challenger against Lugar in next year's Republican primary.

This far from Election Day, it's hard to imagine voters thinking back to the summer of '11 and their lawmaker's position on raising the debt ceiling. But it's clear that advocacy groups see this vote as a way to rally their supporters, and to put members of Congress on notice that they're being watched.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Now to the debate over raising the debt ceiling, a debate that has until now taken place largely in the halls of Congress and the White House Briefing Room. Well, there's another front in that battle.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, advocacy groups from each side of the issue are now spending millions on commercials.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It may be 16 months until the next election, but you wouldn't know it if you've been watching some of the ads running in TV markets around the country these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

Unidentified Man #1: Representative Lou Barletta must think Pennsylvania voters are stupid. He's toeing the Republican line.

Unidentified Man #2: Now with 14 trillion in debt, Lugar will soon vote on raising our debt limit even higher.

Unidentified Woman #1: Tell Congressman Shuler, no more reckless spending and debt, no more blank checks.

NAYLOR: These ads are running in the districts of Republican Congressman Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler of North Carolina. And they're evidence of the latest trend in political advertising, according to Ken Goldstein, president of CMAG, a Virginia-based consulting group, which tracks political ads.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: I think we used to be in a world where people thought election ads were aired during election time, and lobbying or issue ads were aired during non-election time. I think those lines have completely blurred.

NAYLOR: Probably the biggest debt ceiling ad buy, $20 million, is part of a summer campaign by the group Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove, to help Republican congressional candidates. It's targeting Democrats in swing states, and it's also running a national ad titled "Wake Up" in which a woman in a nightgown is seen getting up in the middle of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "WAKE UP")

NORRIS: Sometimes, it's hard to sleep. I'm worried, I guess, about our jobs, our home, how everything costs more, even mom's health care. How will we ever retire? Lately, I worry a lot about my kids. What's their future going to be like? I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. But since then, things have gone from bad to much worse.

NAYLOR: Steven Law is president of Crossroads GPS. He says in this ad, the group is trying to provide some context.

STEVEN LAW: Most people don't think every day about the debt limit. In fact, in our focus groups, we found that very, very few people were even aware of the idea of the debt limit, and so we wanted to provide some context. You know, how did we get here, how did the spending that has happened over the last several years trigger this, and what are the policy choices that people need to start to address to fix it?

NAYLOR: The left leaning MoveOn.org, meanwhile, is going after what it believes are vulnerable Republicans, like freshman Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

GOP: Representative Barletta won't budge. It seems like he'd rather see our families fail, our economy fail and our entire country fail than simply stand up to the GOP's greedy friends.

NAYLOR: MoveOn.org has paid for ads in three congressional districts, including Barletta's, a buy of some $35,000. It's also cut ads running on the Web aimed at other Republicans.

Justin Ruben is the group's executive director.

JUSTIN RUBEN: Our theory is basically that if the most vulnerable Republicans start getting flooded with pressure from their constituents, that they may put enough pressure on their leadership that is kind of leading the country over a cliff right now to get them to back down.

NAYLOR: Other Republicans are being targeted by conservatives. The Club for Growth has taken out ads aimed at some in the GOP, like the six-term veteran Senator Lugar, warning him not to vote for a debt ceiling increase.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

Unidentified Man #4: After 35 long years, tell Richard Lugar, no more debt.

NAYLOR: The anti-tax Club for Growth is backing a primary challenger against Lugar in next year's Republican primary.

This far from Election Day, it's hard to imagine voters thinking back to the summer of 2011 and their lawmakers' position on raising the debt ceiling, but it's clear that advocacy groups see this vote as a way to rally their supporters and to put members of Congress on notice that they're being watched.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.