DCCC–“Stand Up for Medicare”

  • Title: “Stand Up for Medicare”
  • Sponsor: Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
  • Issue of Focus: Medicare
  • Type of Advertisement: Positive
  • Broadcast Location: Nationwide
  • Release Date: March 26, 2012
  • Length: 1:46
  • Web Address: http://www.dccc.org/pages/stand-up-for-medicare/

“Stand Up for Medicare” Script

Martin Sheen: “Hello, I’m Martin Sheen. Forty-four presidents have served our nation, each one tested, their leadership called upon to face the challenges of their time. When President Obama stepped onto the stage, our nation was in crisis, on the brink of a global economic meltdown. There were cynics and partisans who stood against him, not out of principle or patriotism, but simply so he’d fail. Despite these voices of obstruction, however, this president is leading us back, helping America rise again. But now the president—all of us, in fact—face another crisis. And it’s not a natural disaster or terrorist cell or global economic failure this time. No, no—this crisis is caused right down the street from the White House. You see, in this crisis, the same Republicans in Congress who obstructed Mr. Obama every step on the road back now want to end Medicare, eliminate it altogether. And what is their goal? Simply to sacrifice Medicare in order to give tax cuts to special interests. That is not the America I was raised to love. In our America, we honor work, keep our promises, and when times get tough, we share the sacrifice. It’s time to stand up for our America and every American, and remember: true patriots don’t just live in America—America lives in them. It’s time to speak out. Tell Republicans in Congress that Americans worked their whole lives and kept their commitments and we expect Republicans to do the same. Tell them to keep their hands off Medicare. And tell them in our America, the cynics and fear mongers, the ones who break a sacred promise simply to reward the wealthy don’t get the final word. No, no. You do. Thank you so much.”

Analysis of “Stand Up for Medicare”

Jade Olson, University of Maryland 

The Context of “Stand Up for Medicare” 

“Stand Up for Medicare” is part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC’s) “Millionaires Over Medicare” campaign, a multimedia campaign targeting “vulnerable” Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives (DCCC, “DCCC Launches”). In early April, the campaign increased its target campaigns from eight House Republicans to fourteen. In addition to this nationwide ad, DCCC put up billboards, created radio advertisements, and conducted automated telephone messaging targeting Republican voters in the districts of these fourteen representatives (DCCC, “DCCC Billboards”). These fourteen Republicans were criticized for their support of House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) “Path to Prosperity” federal budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year. The budget, which garnered criticism from both sides of the aisle, included significant cuts to social safety net programs like Medicare, while providing additional tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans (Congressional Budget Office). President Obama referred to it as “nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism” (Bendery). “Stand Up for Medicare” operates within the context of DCCC’s “Millionaires Over Medicare” campaign by framing the Ryan budget as un-American, and framing its supporters as manufacturers of a “crisis” that hurts seniors for political gain. After airing this ad for one week, the DCCC launched the candidate-specific materials that reinforce such themes by telling voters in the targeted districts whom to oppose in the 2012 House race.

In addition to operating in the context of DCCC’s “Millionaires Over Medicare” campaign, this advertisement must be viewed in the larger context of political rhetoric in its time. “Stand Up for Medicare” accesses and reifies the discourses of partisanship and division that have characterized U.S. party politics in the months prior to its debut. The 112th Congress is noted for a literally record-breaking dearth of productivity that politicians as well as analysts have attributed to party division (Dinan). This Congress turned a normally routine vote, the economically necessary increase of the federal debt ceiling, into what The Caucus’s John Harwood called a “nakedly partisan” political shouting match not seen since the Nixon Administration. In October 2011, the approval rating of Congress dropped into the single digits, a record low (Madison). More recently the “Supercommittee” appointed to “save Congress from itself” by forging a compromise failed, surprising few (Cooper). “Stand Up for Medicare” juxtaposes legislative actions fostering patriotism and commitment with those done for political gain. In the process, the ad firmly established the Obama administration’s patriotic support for Medicare and conversely posited the Ryan budget as a partisan act. The ad situates Republicans who support the proposed budget cuts to Medicare as “cynics and partisans” who insist on contributing to legislative gridlock for unjust reasons.

Ad Assumptions 

“Stand Up for Medicare” assumes support for basic social safety net programs, with a clear focus on Medicare. It posits Medicare as part of a “promise” that the federal government has made to hard-working Americans. It affirms the value of entitlement programs as earned by older Americans via their decades of economic contribution in the workforce, and refers to that contract as nothing short of “sacred.” Medicare constitutes a significant component of federal spending (about $486 billion, or 14 percent of the federal budget, in 2011) and has the second-highest price tag of any entitlement program, the highest being Social Security (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). This advertisement assumes that, despite its high cost to taxpayers, the audience supports the program’s protection due to its social good.

The ad also assumes that the audience opposes tax cuts for wealthy Americans. This is evidenced by its blatant villainization of Republicans who voted to, in the words of the ad, “sacrifice Medicare in order to give tax cuts to special interests.” The ad’s implication is that “special interests” refers to the wealthy as revealed in the commentary directed toward the Ryan budget. Neither support for Medicare nor opposition to tax cuts for the rich appears controversial given the availability of certain data. Across-the-board support for Medicare over the last few years has remained high even amidst the country’s economic troubles (Blendon and Benson), and polls show that a significant majority of Americans favor tax increases, not cuts, on the wealthiest Americans (Politicus USA).

“Stand Up for Medicare” also assumes of its audience a certain level of affinity for and familiarity with actor Martin Sheen. Sheen has been politically active since his teen years, and has been outspoken in favor of Democratic and progressive politics ever since (van Diggelen). He marched with César Chávez during the California farm worker movement in 1965 (KMPH). He also stated in a 2008 interview that he had been arrested 67 times for nonviolent civil disobedience (McGarry). Sheen has been a vocal supporter of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for president, has supported marriage equality (StarPulse), and has opposed the war in Iraq (Associated Press). Of course, it is very common for film and television celebrities like Sheen to engage in activism, and Hollywood has long been associated with liberal politics in particular. However, Sheen’s comments on any political issue, including his remarks in “Stand Up for Medicare,” must be understood in the context of his Hollywood celebrity.

Ad Content: President Bartlet for Obama? 

Already an established actor for his roles in blockbuster films with cultural staying power such as Apocalypse Now and Wall Street, Sheen is best known more recently for his portrayal of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet in the The West Wing, which aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006. Part of the show’s acclaim is due to the favorable reception of Bartlet as an “ideal president” (Crawley). Viewers both identify with and idealize President Bartlet, and although his character has notable shortcomings (ranging from his initial political naivete as seen in the episode “A Proportional Response” to his personal stubbornness shown in “The White House Pro-Am”), it is clear that viewers also embrace his compassion, intellect, and dedication to the office (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles, Prime-Time Presidency, 77-78).

As Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles note, the ostensible balance between the federal government’s three branches is disrupted by the cultural emphasis on the office of the presidency as “the expression and receptacle of communal identity and ideology,” a concept they term presidentiality (“Prime-Time,” 211). In this way, the institution of the presidency becomes an ideological touchstone, and the individuals occupying that office both shape it and are shaped by it. That “President Bartlet” is praising the Obama administration’s support of Medicare is to have a valuable endorsement for President Obama and his position on Medicare (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles, Prime-Time Presidency, 77). In the process of drawing upon the memory of Sheen as President Bartlet, the ad also resurrects the calls of Bartlet for president that were commonplace during the show’s airing. YouTube users make this connection clear with comments like “Bartlet 2012,” “Bartlet 2016,” and “Bartlet for America!” These remarks cement both the wistful support for Bartlet as a real-life candidate and the tongue-in-cheek, enthymematic implication that it is Josiah Bartlet, not Martin Sheen, who uses his strong voice of authority to condemn Republican supporters of Medicare cuts.

Sheen has used his portrayal of Bartlet for a number of political causes before. In 2005, Sheen visited war protester Cindy Sheehan’s makeshift camp outside of then-president George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch. Sheen used his West Wing role to add a somewhat ironic level of ethos to his support for Sheehan’s peace activism, saying to a crowd of hundreds, “at least you’ve got the acting president of the United States” (Associated Press). At the time of the visit, The West Wing was about to begin its seventh and final season. Although the show ended years prior to “Stand Up for Medicare” and the advertisement makes no literal mention of Sheen’s presidential persona, the ad evokes the memory of The West Wing in a number of ways.

Ad Content: Filming Sheen, Constructing Bartlet 

“Stand Up for Medicare” relies on the fictional image of President Josiah Bartlet through more than just Sheen’s presence. The ad depicts the actor in a “backstage” setting—viewers can clearly see an industrial light used in film and television production, as well as a bare, black metal railing. The space is dark, and with only these two objects visible behind Sheen, the setting evokes the backstage area of any theater or film set. At the very beginning and ending of the ad, viewers can see that Sheen is holding a binder-clipped stack of white paper reminiscent of a script. As he begins speaking at the beginning of the ad, Sheen removes his reading glasses from his face, folds them and carries them below the camera’s frame, not to be seen again. This action, combined with the presence of the script, makes the advertisement seem like it has been filmed on the set of a show or movie in which Sheen is acting—that he has taken a brief break from his performance to discuss Medicare with viewers. His remarks are constructed as literally unscripted, and thus as heartfelt and authentic.

The camera angles and music of “Stand Up for Medicare” also evoke Bartlet and The West Wing to lend ethos to the ad’s message. The West Wing often featured close-up shots of President Bartlet that depict him as thoughtful, intellectual, compassionate, and powerful.

His range of desirable emotions is depicted visually through these shots, and “Stand Up for Medicare” employs this framing as well. As Grabe and Bucy note, the “microlevel phenomena” of candidates’ facial expressions are key elements of their public images, and can make or break elections (147). They argue that candidate facial expressions can be categorized into two categories, which they term “agonic” (threatening and evasive) and “hedonic” (conciliatory and jovial). One of the ways that Democratic candidates have failed recently, they posit, is the kairotic ability to know when to express each of these expressions (178). In “Stand Up for Medicare,” Sheen adopts both kinds of expressions in a powerful way, adding to the forcefulness of his remarks. The camera shows him at two zoomed in levels: one similar to conversational distance (viewers see Sheen from the chest up) and one showing only his face and shoulders, which offers viewers a chance to scrutinize Sheen’s expressions in order to evaluate his authenticity. When he indicts Republicans for their unpatriotic and partisan legislative actions, he furrows his brows, points an aggressive finger and expresses himself agonistically. On the other hand, in discussing President Obama and the potential for the viewer to protect Medicare by “standing up,” Sheen softens his brows and smiles.  By using these affect displays, Sheen is able to reinforce the consistency, passion, and optimism that audiences admire in the image of President Bartlet.

Reactions to “Stand Up for Medicare” 

This advertisement was not met with the media firestorm that has accompanied other advertisements of the 2012 campaign season. This may be because Sheen’s Democratic activism is nothing new to the viewing public. As such, the piece has not yet engendered any coverage that might evidence a sense of controversy. The press coverage that it has received is largely uncritical (see, for example, Koplowitz). The GOP has not yet commented on the advertisement.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Martin Sheen visits Sheehan’s anti-war camp.” CTV News. August 29, 2005.   http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/World/20050829/sheen_sheehan_050829/.

Bendery, Jennifer. “Obama: Paul Ryan’s Budget is ‘Nothing But Thinly Veiled Social Darwinism.’” The       Huffington Post. April 3, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/obama-paul-ryan-budget-social-darwinism_n_1399080.html.

Blendon, Robert J. and John M. Benson. “The Public’s Views about Medicare and the Budget Deficit.” The New England Journal of Medicine. July 28, 2011. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1107184.

Carroll, Kelly Ann. “What If Jed Bartlet Was President?” NoMad Blogger. July 27, 2011.             http://kellyanncarroll.com/2011/07/27/what-if-jed-bartlet-was-president/.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go?”    Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. April 2, 2012. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258.

Congressional Budget Office. “The Long-Term Budgetary Impact of Paths for Federal Revenues andSpending Specified by Chairman Ryan.” March 2012. http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/03-20-Ryan_Specified_Paths_2.pdf.

Cooper, Michael. “A Failure is Absorbed with Disgust and Fear, but Little Surprise.” The New York Times. November 21, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/us/politics/disgust-but-no-surprise-at-supercommittee-failure.html.

Crawley, Melissa. Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s The West Wing. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. (2006): 178.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “DCCC Billboards Hold House Republicans Accountable for Choosing ‘Millionaires over Medicare.’” Democrats 2012. April 12, 2012.             http://dccc.org/blog/entry/dccc_billboards_hold_house_republicans_accountable/.

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—. YouTube. March 26, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bF83rWr1Exk.

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KMPH. “Martin Sheen Urges Governor to Support Farmworker Overtime Measure.” KMPH 26. July 13, 2010. http://www.kmph.com/story/12800947/martin-sheen-urges-governor-to-support-farmworker-overtime-measure?redirected=true.

Koplowitz, Howard. “Martin Sheen Stands Up For Obama, Accuses GOP Of Trying To End Medicare.” The International Business Times. March 26, 2012. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/319618/20120326/martin-sheen-video-medicare-barack-obama-dccc.htm

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McGarry, Lisa. “Martin Sheen Tells Graham Norton Who He Backs as President.” UnReality Primetime. April 24, 2008. http://primetime.unrealitytv.co.uk/martin-sheen-tells-graham-norton-who-he-backs-as-president/.

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