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By Steve Rosenbush Earlier this year, Dan Rutt quit his job as a county health-care planner to help play a role in the political process. Not to knock on doors as a campaign worker in his home state of Ohio, which may be this election's biggest prize. No, Rutt gave up a steady paycheck for life as an anti-Bush entrepreneur. "It's not a real huge moneymaker, but that was not the idea in the first place," says Rutt, proprietor of Top Pun, the self-proclaimed world's largest anti-Bush online store.
American Presidential campaigns have always been rough business. As he campaigned for the White House amid the din of artillery, gangly Abraham Lincoln was depicted as an ape by antiwar Democrats in the North and South. Republicans ridiculed the short, stocky Harry Truman as a little tailor from Missouri. Truman suggested, in turn, that the Republicans were fascists. And the attacks on Bill Clinton were remorseless, even before his second term was scarred by scandal.
Yet the rhetoric of the 2004 campaign is still remarkable for its harshness, perhaps because the candidates are running so closely in the polls all the way to the end (see BW Online's campaign blog, "Party Lines"). Tapping into a deep vein of antipathy toward President Bush, opponents have had a field day mocking everything from the incumbent's height to his penchant for mumbling things like "rumors on the Internets" while debating Senator John Kerry before a global audience.
"GOOD FOR THEM." This being America, entrepreneurs are finding a way to turn that political passion into profit -- and with Election Day less than a week away their fortunes are climbing. Sidewalk vendors and Internet stores have created a cottage industry of anti-Bush T-shirts, umbrellas, coffee mugs, stickers, and mouse pads.
T-shirts urging voters to "Re-defeat Bush" are available for $20 at www.Redeatbush.com. In Park Slope, a liberal section of Brooklyn, N.Y., toddlers are wearing T-shirts with slogans such as "Bush is a Tush." The shirts can be purchased from LuLu's Cut's & Toys, a children's hair salon, for $20. Owner Brigitte Pratt says she has sold about 75 of them over the last month. "Only one customer has walked out. I say good for them."
Plenty of anti-Kerry merchandise is available, too. T-shirts that say "Kerry for President of France" and "I voted for Kerry...before I didn't" are available from an Internet company called proGOpgear. But merchandise taunting the Massachusetts Senator is eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of all things anti-Bush. By some accounts, up to 3,000 anti-Bush sites are on the Web, many of which have goods for sale. Political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's nonpartisan Center for Politics, says the sheer volume and intensity of anti-Bush products is unprecedented in Presidential politics.
RAW SENTIMENTS. The trade in anti-Bush merchandise isn't likely to have much effect on the election. It may help fire up Kerry's base, but for the most part, entrepreneurs such as Rutt are preaching to the converted. He says most of his e-mail comes from supporters, suggesting that his Web pages are viewed by like-minded people. Regardless, it seems unlikely that undecided voters are going to see a "Bush Sucks" T-shirt on the way into the voting booth and then pull the lever for Kerry.
Yet the silent hand of the market appears to be meeting the needs of consumers who want to bash the President. Some mainstream retailers have also entered the game, including Urban Outfitters (URBN
) whose shelves include Bush coasters and other items. They feature pictures of the President with quotes that his opponents love, such as "I understand small business growth. I was one," and "We ought to make the pie higher." The company, based in Philadelphia, declined to comment on sales.
Some of the anti-Bush sentiments are raw, indeed. The market is rife with endless sexual innuendo. At www.bushandcheneysuck.com, you can buy $15 shirts that say "Screw Bush," and "No Bushit War." And www.altahemp.com sells a $17 T-shirt that features a picture of Bush in a Nazi uniform, framed by a red, white, and blue toilet seat. The Web site, which sells dozens of anti-Bush shirts made with organically grown hemp and cotton and nontoxic ink, says it's very busy. "As the election nears, we're working six or seven days a week to keep up with demand," according to George Bates, who runs both sites.
"LIGHT-HEARTED APPROACH." The most popular items are a bit more pointed, though. They include the "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease" and "Support Space Exploration...Send Bush to Mars," both of which are available for $17, according to Bates, 55, who also manages a related company, the Shirt Magic printing facility in Lewiston, Calif.
Top Pun proprietor Rutt is typical of the anti-Bush businessperson. While most companies are focused on making money, he's driven primarily by a desire to get his point across. Pacifism was instilled in him at an early age by his parents, who were Mennonite medical missionaries in Haiti, where he was born. He's a long-time political activist who says he went to jail for three months for refusing to register for the draft.
Rutt's site, www.toppun.com, sells 150 designs, which he created on his PC. The sentiments, which can be printed on a range of merchandise from shirts to coffee mugs and mouse pads, are highly charged expressions of his point of view. One features the slogan "Have you preyed today?...Support Religious Violence," superimposed over pictures of Bush and Osama bin Laden. "It's a good blend," Rutt says. "I can address serious issues in a light-hearted way."
LIFE AFTER NOV. 2? He has other things in common with other small-business people, as well. He does his own printing at home, using equipment he bought for several thousand dollars. He uses a home equity line of credit to tide him over during tough times. And he loves being on his own. He knows that business will decline after the election, regardless of who wins.
But he says he's determined to develop new lines of products so he can continue to support himself with Top Pun. He may focus on other issues such as peace and justice, minimum wage, or gay and lesbian issues. "My quality of life has improved tremendously," Rutt says. "Being my own boss, I can work at home and run with whatever creative interests I like."
At least one observer thinks the tone of this year's political paraphernalia is a bad sign. The University of Virginia's Sabato, views the products as part of a broader campaign trend that includes more politically motivated vandalism and fist fights. "It could be very hard for people to come together," Sabato warns. "Whoever wins may well have a miserable term."
Don't be surprised if you see the next President of the United States wearing a T-shirt that says "Take this job and shove it." Rosenbush is a senior writer at BusinessWeek Online