Of RATS and Men

Sean Mattie

September 1, 2000

According to news reports, pests have invaded a political advertisement contrasting George W. Bush’s and Al Gore’s proposals to provide prescription drugs for older Americans. In the ad, an image of Gore is followed by the text “Bureaucrats decide,” with the word “RATS” flashing on the screen before the full word “bureaucrats” appears. Thus it seems that the authors of the spot have propagated a subliminal message, a shady tactic long thought confined to advertisers of cigarettes and children’s cereal.

Now, one does not have to be a post-modern master of linguistic theory to suspect that the ad artfully draws a connection between unelected government officials and annoying rodents.

However, given the world of today’s television—with its creatively juxtaposed images containing multiple meanings—maybe one should be open-minded. Perhaps the makers of the message intended to suggest that after generously pitching a new federal entitlement to senior citizens, Gore was going to extend it to gnawing mammals, for whom prescriptions are also not currently subsidized. Maybe it is an interjection of despair by
Republicans about their fall prospects.

When it first appeared, the “RATS” ad bypassed the awareness of George W. Bush, although it was not so subliminal as to escape the notice of the New York Times, Reuters, or the Democratic candidate. Gore claimed to be disappointed about the ad and never to have seen anything like it. One notes, though, that partisan animal references are at least as old as Bill Clinton’s accusation that Newt Gingrich’s budget-cutting House was
trying to take away Big Bird.

The ad has also had a not-so-subtle effect on two Democratic U.S. senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and John Breaux of Louisiana, and their response has been the most interesting yet. Senators Wyden and Breaux have declared, “We have reason to believe that broadcasters are airing television advertisements that contain subliminal messages in violation of public interest.” Of course, whether the advertisement insults Gore and bureaucrats, and whether it does so subliminally, and whether subliminal insults are bad for the American people, are all fair questions for an elected official to raise. The rub was how Wyden and Breaux pursued these matters.

The senators questioned the ad in an official letter to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, William Kennard. They told him that it is “the best interest of both political parties, and all Americans” that the FCC conduct an “immediate and impartial review of this matter.” Before we call the exterminator about “RATS,” though, let’s recall what exactly the FCC is. The Federal Communications Commission is an agency with broad powers that mimic the three branches of government established by the Constitution:

Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary. The FCC enforces policy on an enormous range of broadcasting content and media, but it is policy that the FCC itself makes, applies, and adjudicates—namely the numerous decrees laid out in the Code of Federal Regulations. Like many agencies created since the New Deal, the FCC is officially considered “independent” of the President, so that little things like the election of a new Chief Executive don’t interrupt the regulation of businesses and consumer products and

However, the “independence” of the FCC and its ilk also means its practical independence from citizens, who cannot vote to remove agency officials that administer an unjust or oppressive policy.

Might the regulation and restriction of the content of a campaign advertisement be an unjust or oppressive (and unconstitutional) policy? It is amusing that the question whether a political advertisement secretly calls bureaucrats rats may be decided by a bureaucrat—“impartially,” of course. But there are serious issues of government that—unlike clumsy subtext—may go unnoticed. One obvious matter is whether political speech is protected speech or whether the jurisdiction of the FCC extends over the First Amendment.

Another issue is the willingness of members of our constitutional, elective branches to duck political questions both serious and small and to let them be determined by officials that govern American citizens in all sorts of ways except by the consent of the governed. Congress is, of course, an elective branch of government, accountable to the people for whom it makes laws, and the Senate is supposed to be the truly deliberative part of that branch. Yet, by their response to the ad Senators Wyden and Breaux would turn over their responsibility to reason in public, as Congress has widely turned over to independent agencies its authority to make law for the American people.

For the record, Bush has denied that the “RATS” text was anything but accidental, but he also believes that “someone ought to have the grace to resign over the ad.” On the issue of availability of prescription drugs to seniors, Bush declared, “I don’t think we need to be subliminal” about the differences between his plan and Gore’s. “That’s where the debate ought to be,” he said.

Another useful debate during this—or any—campaign season would be about government by bureaucracy in the United States, and whether or not those who administer the government are accountable to the governed. Such a debate ought to be conducted not subliminally but openly, by candid and courageous officials that seek and are subject to our consent. Then we may know better whether the connection between bureaucrats and rats is merely a linguistic coincidence.

Sean Mattie is a visiting professor of political science at Hillsdale College and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University (smattie@ashbrook.org).