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Super Bowl ads offer two views of national anxieties

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
updated 11:17 AM EST, Wed February 8, 2012
Pete Hoekstra's ad that aired during the Super Bowl on February 5 targeted U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Pete Hoekstra's ad that aired during the Super Bowl on February 5 targeted U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Two ads revealed contrasting ways to reckon with anxieties about national decline
  • Liu says Clint Eastwood ad appealed to every positive aspect of American character
  • He says the Pete Hoekstra ad about China is insulting and race-baiting
  • Liu: Greatest threat comes from a loss of faith in our own ability to play a winning game

Editor's note: Eric Liu is co-author of "The Gardens of Democracy" and served as a speechwriter and deputy domestic policy adviser to President Clinton. He is on Twitter at @ericpliu.

(CNN) -- Many Americans worry that our country has seen its best days. That's particularly so in Michigan, where the auto industry has suffered so greatly in recent years. On Super Bowl Sunday, two television ads that emerged from that state revealed two very different ways to reckon with anxieties about national decline.

First, there was the "It's Halftime for America" commercial that Clint Eastwood appeared in for Chrysler. Here was a mini-movie that made Detroit a symbol of the nation and appealed to every positive aspect of the American character: our optimism, our ability to take a punch, our determination, our ability to innovate and our penchant for proving doomsayers wrong.

When I saw that ad, I called to my family to run in and watch. It gave me goosebumps. Not just because it was beautifully shot, simply scripted and perfectly voiced by Eastwood but because it struck every chord of a true patriotism that transcends chest-thumping to say, "We are a country that fails often -- and converts each failure into the next success. Don't underestimate us."

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Republican strategist Karl Rove, in a surprising strategic blunder, complained that the ad played like an Obama re-election pitch. The thought hadn't even occurred to me, though I'm sure the president is delighted to be accused of being a metaphor for national resilience. All I saw was a story about a company, a city, an industry and a country on the way back. If Rove interpreted this as bad news because it could benefit an incumbent Democratic president, that says something about how he prioritizes party and country.

Ruben Navarrette: Don't pick a fight with Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood's Chrysler ad "Halftime."
The best and worst Super Bowl ads

But Rove's grousing, and his seeming preference for a dour, doomsday-in-America narrative, was overshadowed by the piece of work that Pete Hoekstra unveiled on Sunday. Hoesktra, a former Republican congressman in Michigan taking on Democrat and incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, aired a 30-second spot that became instantly infamous online.

It features a woman of Asian descent, presumably Chinese, speaking in broken English and thanking Stabenow for policies that put America in hock to our Chinese creditors and overlords: "Your economy get very weak," she says. "Ours get very good. We take your jobs! Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow!"

Put aside the ham-handedness of the concept, which insults the heritage of some viewers and the intelligence of all. Put aside the fact that Hoekstra made not even a pretense of hiding his race-baiting and assumes Chinese Americans like me aren't in the electorate. What's truly galling to me -- as an unhyphenated native-born American -- is that this ad implies our country should take a quitter's posture. It's not halftime, says Hoekstra's spot; it's game over. China owns us, and now all that's left is to assign blame in a bitter postgame spurt of sarcasm.

This loser of a message is a loser whatever party it comes from (and to be sure, there have been Democrats in recent elections who've wanted to play a China card against Republicans). What's missing in Hoekstra's attempt at a campaign message is any affirmative story of what we can be, where we are headed, how we will right our trajectory and remain the world's indispensable nation.

Most of all, missing in the fear and insecurity of his commercial is the simple recognition that our diversity, when properly mobilized, is the indomitable competitive advantage of the United States. There have been times, narrates Eastwood in the Chrysler ad, "when the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one."

Is that a little mythmaking, a little wishful thinking? Sure, they're selling cars, after all. But I love that Eastwood is trying. His message is not just that we are tough. It's that we are tougher together. It's that we are better than the rest of the world put together because we are the rest of the world put together: that our yellow girls and boys, our brown and black and red and white ones too, when led with a sense of shared purpose, need yield to no one.

This is not rhetoric. It is scientific fact. The study of the evolution of complex social systems proves that groups that can maximize the number of fit and able competitors in the marketplace are the ones that prevail. (The study of football proves this as well.) We have the diversity in this country; the only question is what we will do with it.

America has deep problems. We have rivals and enemies. But if there's one thing Super Bowl weekend should teach us, it's that the greatest threat to our success now comes not from imagined manipulators in the Far East but from a loss of faith in our own ability to play a winning game. Eastwood vs. Hoekstra? There's only one real American answer.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

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