Saturday, April 12, 2008

Playing to Your Weakness: Barack Obama's Turn

I have a theory. Well, it's not my theory exactly; others have said more or less the same thing. Also, I may have mentioned it previously on this blog. Anyway, here it is: politicians develop certain images, exaggerated summaries of their strong and weak points. They tend to get themselves into trouble when they say or do something that plays into—and emphasizes—the fears and concerns that voters already have about them. Thus, what might be a mild distraction for one candidate could become a devastating blow for another.

Throughout history, presidential debates have provided a wealth of such moments. In the very first televised debate between Democratic and Republican nominees, John F. Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon more on style than substance. Even today, people remember that radio listeners thought Nixon had won, while TV viewers gave the victory to Kennedy. This, it turns out, is an exaggeration, but it is clear that Kennedy won the battle of images. Smartly dressed in a dark suit, legs comfortably crossed, JFK benefited from the contrast with the pasty-faced, sweaty, nervous-looking Nixon, whose light suit blended into the backdrop and whose own legs seemed fidgety.

Why would any of that matter? Well, back then people were given to thinking that television was a window to the soul and Nixon's soul had already been the subject of some controversy, going all the way back to his 1952 Checkers speech, the first—but hardly the last—time Tricky Dick had to explain that he was not a crook. And there he was on yet another national broadcast looking like nothing so much as a criminal defendant undergoing police interrogation. Even his eyes were shifty. It's not as though these same characteristics would have helped another candidate, but in 1960 they were especially damaging because they played into everyone's fears that Nixon might just be, as Harry Truman once said, "a shifty-eyed goddamn liar".

Sixteen years later, Gerald Ford was the recipient of the next memorable debating "moment". Responding to a question about the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, Ford stated that he did not believe that Poland, Romania, and the rest were under Soviet control. He almost certainly meant that he would never concede the legitimacy of Russia's domination of its neighbors, but that's not what he said. The next day's newspapers were filled with devastating speculation about the inability of the President of the United States to comprehend even the most basic realities of Cold War geopolitics.

Again, no candidate would be helped by such a gaffe, but it hit Ford especially hard. The rap on Jerry Ford was that he was a nice man of great integrity who, as Lyndon Johnson once remarked, couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. The comedian Chevy Chase portrayed Ford on "Saturday Night Live" as a clueless bumbler, and speculation abounded that the new Commander-in-Chief was not the sharpest blade in the Ginzu collection. As a result, an honest misstatement during a single debate was perceived by millions as further evidence of President Ford's lack of intellectual qualification for his high office.

And it's not just presidential debates. Think back to Howard Dean's infamous scream in Iowa back in 2004. How could anything so trivial end up dominating the electorate's view of a bright and dedicated public servant? Even today, if you ask the average American to tell you one thing about Governor Dean, you will likely hear something resembling "Yeeeowww!!!!" The problem, of course, was that The Scream corresponded perfectly with the negative side of Dean's image, the notion that he was amateurish, radical, and slightly out of control.

OK, I think you get the point. Here we are in 2008, with fifty—if not 250—years of evidence that candidates need to avoid playing into their most negative stereotypes, and yet they still do it. Hillary Clinton's tall tale about taking sniper fire in Bosnia obviously hurt her a great deal. Her poll numbers have not been the same since her story was discredited. Once again, no presidential contender wants to get caught in a lie, but the damage to Senator Clinton may have been particularly strong because many voters and pundits already thought of her as someone who would do or say anything to acquire political power. When she was caught doing precisely that, the impact was likely greater than it would have been on any of her opponents.

This week, it is Barack Obama's turn. Talking to supporters in San Francisco, of all places, Obama discussed the plight of small town Americans in the grip of economic recession:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not."

So far, so good. Nice empathy. A shot at both the Clintons and the Bushes. But then he added:

"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Yikes! That's gonna cost him some votes in Altoona. But worse yet, it's going to fit nicely within the developing Republican (and Clinton) narrative that Senator Obama is an urban intellectual elitist who thinks he's better than the working men and women who didn't edit the Harvard Law Review. They cling to guns or religion or bigotry. They wear mullets and spit tobacky juice and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. They'd probably tell you that Merlot was a French impressionist, except that they all think that "French impressionist" is just another name for a mime.

Barack Obama will very likely be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. His famous eloquence could easily turn to dust if millions of American start to view it as the pretty words of a man who enjoys showing off to his wealthy coastal friends. At this point, Obama is perhaps one additional slip away from becoming John Kerry. The Republicans have prospered for years by convincing Middle American voters that the Democratic candidate du jour looks down on their simple expressions of religious devotion, their insistence on the right to bear arms, and their heartfelt patriotism. And now Obama has all but told them that it is their weakness that compels them to "cling" to Jesus and Remington.

I suspect that we will not hear the last of this until sometime in mid-November.

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