Washington D.C. is a company town. And the company is the U.S. government. Everywhere you go — cafes, restaurants, hotel lobbies, bookstores — you overhear people talking politics.

Ad in D.C. Metro (Photo by Scott Shafer/KQED)

So maybe it should come as no surprise that riders on the Washington D.C. Metro system are bombarded with political messages aimed at politicians, staff, lobbyists, think tanks, media and other “opinion leaders.”

Case in point: As I rode the Blue Line to the Hill on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but notice the paid ads plastered all over the car. The graphic: a prescription bottle, tilted sideways, with a skull and cross bones. Then the label: “WARNING: Washington politics might just kill you,” followed by the message “Americans are dying to know: Will Congress abandon medical research?”

The ad is paid for by Research America, an advocacy group funded by large drug companies, including Burroughs Wellcome and Pfizer, and research universities like Johns Hopkins. This alliance is obviously worried that Congress (including many members, no doubt, receiving pharmaceutical industry campaign contributions) will end up slashing research dollars as part of an effort to reduce the deficit.

(Photo: Scott Shafer/KQED)

That message pales in comparison to the one waiting for Capitol Hill staff and other insiders at the Capitol South station, which no doubt a good many walk through on their way to work. Currently they’ll find a series of messages — on the floor, on the walls, on free-standing pillars — calling attention to the annual U.S. deficit. The ground is plastered with white-on-orange letters blaring the message “TALK IS CHEAP,” followed by “Overspending is Not.” Other signs feature red, white and blue calculators displaying the rising federal debt. There are also pie charts comparing “the debt when Bush took office” (they don’t specify Bush 41 or 43) with “the debt when Clinton took office.”

Finally, there is a photo of President Obama, whose eyes are obscured by the quote, “I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term in office.”

By the time you make it up the escalator, you feel like you’ve been mired in another election campaign.

Hard to say if this campaign, from the group Bankrupting America (not the most positive message), works — or how its success would even be measured.

But one thing’s for sure: a lot of influential eyeballs see (and walk over) these things every day.

Inaugural Notebook: Hardball Politics in the D.C. Metro 25 April,2014Scott Shafer


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED's Politics and Government Desk. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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