The Scary Ad that Sold Out Dirty Harry


The latest manufactured controversy in the world of punditry is over this ad, which ran during the Super Bowl to tell viewers that U.S. auto companies have recovered and that everything’s going to be fine. Clint Eastwood, a Republican, has said that he had no thought of this being a political ad, yet it’s been attacked all over conservative media as being an Obama campaign ad in disguise; Karl Rove said that this was another example of “political patronage” and, of course, “Chicago-style politics.” (That one must be one of the most popular new catchphrases of our time, along with “Alinsky.”)

How did this turn into a political controversy? One way to understand it is the u-word: unions. Much of the opposition to the bailout of the auto companies in the U.S. has portrayed it as a sop to unions, as the Obama administration’s attempt to keep the auto industry from becoming de-unionized. Rush Limbaugh has, as usual, been very skilful at weaving different themes into a unified whole: he says repeatedly that the whole bailout was a sop to “union bosses,” that it involves the government telling companies how to make their cars, and that the ultimate goal is to force people to buy “green” cars they don’t want or like.

I’ll tell you what’s headed down the road, you’re going to see union members on the board of directors, you’re going to see green wacko environmentalists on the board of directors, and General Motors is going to be designing and building cars, selling cars that satisfy Obama’s desire for green, environmental friendly cars, blah, blah, blah, blah — that’s what you’re going to see coming down the road. Plus, everybody in the auto industry has to make concessions here except the unions. This is also payback for the unions.

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, explains what conservatives would have liked to see happen in Detroit:

What Chrysler and GM desperately needed in their extremity was to go through Chapter 11 reorganization to pare down wages and benefits, shed uneconomical dealerships, and ditch unnecessary brands. When the government got its hooks in them, it politicized this process and threw some $80 billion at the companies. Since we’ll never get an estimated $23 billion back, we all must be “pulling together” behind Detroit still.

From this point of view, whether the bailouts “worked” is something of a false issue: the government shouldn’t have gotten involved, and the best thing in the long term is for companies to cut salaries and downsize. To celebrate the bailouts is to take an ideological stand on the extent of government involvement in business, and on whether or not the auto industry should have cut the unions loose.

That’s what Eastwood didn’t seem to realize; he thought he was lending his voice and craggy face to a bit of feel-good apolitical puffery. He wasn’t, because it really has become a political, ideological issue – and maybe it should be, since these ideological differences are real and serious. Besides, this is the way the game is going to be played this year: because Obama likes to portray himself as a moderate technocrat who chooses the solutions that “bring people together” (I am not saying he is those things; that’s how he portrays himself), an ad that also hits those themes is going to be scrutinized as a possible Obama endorsement.