Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Raging Bull?

I guess the media decided the other day that it was John McCain's turn to take the heat. Every four years, the working press establish their negative narratives and then dare the candidates to prove them wrong. This year, for example, Hillary Clinton is a soulless liar who will say or do anything to win. Barack Obama is an elitist wimp with a barely disguised taste for radicalism and friends who hold their country in contempt. And now we have McCain, the raging bull of politics, the man with a temper so out of control that even some of his Republican colleagues express concern about his ability to represent America as diplomat in chief.

This is nothing new, of course. These narratives go as far back as I remember, so they're not just the creation of the 24/7 cable TV industry or the internet echo chambers. Over forty years ago, Barry Goldwater was the reactionary nutjob who never met a bomb he didn't want to drop. Hubert Humphrey was the loyal vice presidential lapdog, too weak to stand up to LBJ, let alone the Vietcong. George McGovern was both wimpy and extremist, not decisive enough to negotiate tough Cold War realities, yet simultaneously single-minded in his pursuit of the San Francisco-ization of America. Tricky Dick Nixon obviously served as his own self parody.

More recently, Bill Clinton carried the burden of the nickname Slick Willie, while the first President Bush was such a pampered rich boy that he didn't even recognize a grocery store scanner. Bush's son played the role of anti-intellectual frat boy and sometime religious fanatic. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, had a weird penchant for making up tall tales about such bizarre personal accomplishments as inventing the internet. John Kerry was one beret short of being a French citizen.

My theory, both unoriginal and previously expressed, is that candidates get into trouble when they say or do something that inadvertently plays into these negative stereotypes. That's why the eleventh hour discovery, back in 2000, that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Maine in 1976 likely hurt him. It's not that anyone really cared how their presidential nominees celebrated the Bicentennial; instead, the incident simply reminded the electorate of the pre-existing frat boy narrative. Likewise, Hillary Clinton has been enormously damaged by peddling an apparently false story about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia. See, her opponents said, we told you she can't be trusted.

In any event, now that the narratives have been developed for the 2008 election, it should be clear that Senator McCain is both at the greatest advantage and the most significant risk. Assuming that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee (and he might well be by the end of this evening), everything he says will be parsed carefully for any evidence of arrogance, elitism, or subtle anti-Americanism. Phrases that would seem innocent coming from others will be transformed by the media into smoking gun proof of either weakness or world-weariness, and everyone will be hunting for further signs of his supposed disrespect for Joe Six-Pack. Obama will be fighting this battle all the way until November.

Should Hillary Clinton shock the world by upsetting Obama at the Democratic convention this summer, she will receive the Al Gore treatment. That is, fact checkers will pore over her every utterance to make sure that what she said happened in Minneapolis didn't actually take place in St. Paul. The slightest deviation from the historical record will be taken as indicative of her inability to speak honestly about her past, a particularly damaging result considering that her opponent will be Mr. Straight Talk.

As for McCain, all he needs to do is keep his tantrums private. So long as he doesn't blow up at anyone, press or public, he can actually reverse concerns about his capacity for anger. The Democrats will almost certainly work to goad him into some sort of explosion, with campaign trail surrogates seeking ways to annoy him whenever and wherever possible. Either Clinton or Obama—but especially Clinton—will spend much the fall debates working to get the GOP nominee's goat and trigger some sort of angry reaction in front of an audience of millions. As long as he refuses to take the bait, McCain will be fine.

But the risk is obvious. Whereas no individual act on the part of Clinton or Obama would be irreversibly devastating, a single incident of McCain rage, expressed publicly, might effectively doom his candidacy. It probably won't happen, but you know that every Democratic flunky with a cell phone camera will be out there trying to provoke a Macaca moment.

Of course, politics doesn’t have to be this way. Our professional media could make the effort to treat these complicated men and women as something more than stick figures with only two or three defining personality traits. I could also win the lottery, move to Tahiti, and stop worrying myself about all the nonsense.

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