Why has Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” ad enraged Republicans? The ad peddles the kind of gauzy, nationalistic optimism that corporations have been using to sell their products for years. Television in the eighties was one long string of sunrises, farmhouses, bald eagles, and adorable flag-waving kids urging us to buy this car or elect that Republican president. (Here’s a vintage 1987 ABC ad combining every visual motif of the genre.)
Why is this ad any different? One reason is that Chrysler received a bailout, and the ad refers to that in a very oblique way. (“The people of Detroit know something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again.”) Karl Rove calls the ad a political payoff from Chrysler to the Obama administration. Of course, if helping Obama was the goal, then Chrysler would have pointed out, as Obama regularly does, that we didn’t all “pull together” to rescue the auto companies — the bailout garnered fierce opposition from Republicans, including Mitt Romney and, um, ad narrator Clint Eastwood.
The GOP’s deeper problem is that the ad locates the current depression within the context of previous economic downturns — we have fought through those and we’ll fight through this one, drawing together as one. It implicitly suggests that the answer is to return to the postwar consensus era, which is also the era Obama likes to cite, through his grandparents, as an apogee of shared prosperity. The conservative narrative is, of course, very different. The right believes that Obama has fundamentally transformed America for the worse, that the adversity of the last few years is anything but a passing phase. They also believe, paradoxically, that the answer is not to return to the policies of the pre-Obama era but rather to return to “Constitutionalism,” by which they mean the pre-New Deal state.
From an advertising standpoint, this is problematic, since there aren’t a lot of products you can sell by attaching them to Glenn Beck-esque hysterical millennialism. (Gold is one notable exception.) Karl Rove may think it’s “Chicago-style politics,” in which Chrysler somehow repays Obama. (In case you fail to grasp the Chicago link, you probably never learned about the famous episode in which Mayor Daley bailed out Al Capone, who subsequently thanked him in a Super Bowl ad.) But, of course, Chrysler isn’t going to spend millions of dollars out of gratitude. It’s going to spend money because optimism is good business. Optimism happens to be good for the incumbent party, too.