September 21, 2008 | 4:22 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Even from Paris, I can tell that John McCain is in big trouble.
As the Wall Street crisis hit like a tidal wave, Obama’s support has jumped. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin’s support has dropped like a stone. The ABC talking heads tore McCain apart this morning. (I can pick this up online.) What does it all mean?
I think the McCain campaign always had to thread a needle. The Republican party base is a cruel mistress. It can give you the presidential nomination, but it has some strict requirements. Don’t mess with the party’s ideology, even though it is highly unpopular. Be nice to President Bush, even though most Americans detest his presidency (except Republicans). The base gets to veto vice presidential choices, so nobody who is pro-choice can be considered. Do not stray to the center, where elections are won.
And, having met all those requirements, your job is to win the election.
Now, as near as I can tell, McCain had a plan. It went something like this. Give the base what it wants on public policy, total backing for President Bush and conservative ideology. But the rest of the country has to think he is a political moderate, a centrist willing to break with President Bush. McCain could then use his image of moderation, and his high reputation— nearing reverence among political reporters— to appear centrist. Thus ideology would not matter, because style and personality would carry the day.
In fact, to my own astonishment, McCain has actually campaigned to the right of President Bush.
He wants to stay longer in Iraq than Bush does. His foreign policy advisers seem to be the folks who left Bush because he was not belligerent enough in foreign policy. But this could work if Americans get confused about ideology, which seems to happen frequently. His thought seems to be that if people notice that he is attacking Bush they won’t notice that the attack is from the right, simply that it is a criticism of Bush.
Now a couple of things happened that made it hard for this plan to work. One was the Sarah Palin pick.
It’s one thing to mollify the base. It’s another thing to pick a manifestly unqualified person with tons of skeletons in her closet and far right ideology in the hopes of shaking up the race.
And it did shake up the race, and gave McCain a huge boost for a while.
But the Palin pick is like a high caffeine drink. It wears off fast, and you feel really crummy. Every day her support drops by a point or so, and Americans are focusing very nervously on the possibility she might be president. It won’t be long before she is the stuff of comedy.
A more patient, thoughtful candidate would have picked an experienced pro-life politician, whether male or female, and tried to tough it out. McCain went for broke, and now he has reminded people that his age and health really do matter.
The other thing McCain did was lie a lot.
I wish I could use the various euphemisms for lying (mislead, misspeak, etc.), but they don’t do the trick. Palin has followed his lead. These two seem to spout off lies every day. The problem is that for political reporters who have swallowed all kinds of stuff in the last few years, this was simply too hard to swallow. Ideological confusion might have worked, and McCain probably could have swung some version of that by muddying the waters.
But the constant lying, easily countered by video clips and printed quotes, has simply wrecked what used be his base: the media. The lying gave a timid Obama campaign the courage to attack hard and Obama seems to be having much more fun as a result. He could get used to this.
There’s plenty of time for this to turn around before election day. It’s already turned around several times. I don’t see Palin turning around, though; I think she is going to be a serious problem until election day.
Describe for me a voter who doesn’t like her today who is going to like her better tomorrow. I expect to see a lot of Rev. Wright from now on, and then we move to the ground game. There it will be struggle between the immovable object, Republican vote suppression techniques, and the irresistible force, the Obama ground attack.
In that sense, the final result of the ground game will seem to us, as Theodore White so beautifully captured it in his classic The Making of the President 1960, “invisible, as always.”
Raphael J Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the semester as the Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.
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September 14, 2008 | 4:40 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
The hug to nowhere
Can open lying be a good campaign strategy? That's the question that political junkies are weighing this week.
Politics is not science. Political statements are not "peer reviewed" for accuracy. That being said, I've never seen a campaign engage in such open, easily countered lying, as McCain and Palin have done in the last week. It's really astonishing. They say things that are not true, such as that Palin opposed the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, and even after widely debunked, they still say it. And this is only one of maybe a dozen examples in a week. In fact, other than the spelling of their names, I can't find anything either of them has said recently that is verifiably true.
Now in fairness, this week has also seen McCain do very well in the polls. So in the short term, can we say that lying is working? I don't think so. I think McCain got a huge bounce out of selecting Palin, but the debunking of their words since then is a "lagging indicator" that may derail their whole campaign. I think that those who love Palin on the Republican base will not care at all about the truth question. She is their rock star and she can do no wrong. In their view, the media is at fault for attacking her. That should help McCain in the short term to firm up his shaky base, and guarantees that he will not blown out in November and can actually win.
But what about the rest of us? Those in the "reality based community" as right wingers tend to call everybody but themselves? I have a pretty high tolerance for campaign tactics, even when they are used against my side. I can take a perverse pleasure in a good shot, whoever takes it. But this makes me wonder is if these folks have so much contempt for us that they think we will swallow anything if it is said loudly enough.
I should have seen this coming, though. It's inherent in the quirky personality of John McCain. The affable McCain that reporters saw in 2000, and came to worship, emerges only when he is not challenged. There are some people who simply cannot endure being challenged, especially about their integrity. McCain, in my view, is one of them. And for months, whenever he has been challenged, he has simply made things up. When he was read one of his own quotes by Tim Russert, he simply asserted that he had never said it. This is fairly typical of McCain. His temper is explosive when he is challenged, and one way to prevent the explosion is just to deny the charge whatever it is.
McCain has had few tough elections, and has never had a tough media. They have always made excuses for him. Now they are treating him, finally, as a serious candidate who should be questioned. He doesn't like it one bit. His first response, before rage, is denial that he ever said or did what the questioner is asserting, regardless of the truth. Some politicians get angry, evade, push back, but avoid just simply flat-out lying. I wonder if McCain's untruths are his way of holding back the rage.
Now comes the Palin pick, and McCain's camp is totally unprepared for questions because they hardly checked her out at all. So they just made things up. Then they had to endure being fact checked, such as about her alleged trips to Iraq (which never happened) or to Ireland (a refueling stopover). Following McCain's stubborn lead, they just repeat the lies again and again, demanding that they be accepted as the truth.
I don't think this is going to work. If it does work, where does that leave us in a McCain presidency? Perhaps more than McCain ever intended, this whole week of lying is opening a window into his very character and temperament which form, after all, the central rationale for his campaign.
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September 9, 2008 | 6:01 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
My blog won't be as frequent this fall, since I'm in Paris on a Fulbright. So with time zones and stuff, I'm off kilter. But I'm still following things like crazy!
Obviously, the big news is the Sarah Palin nomination. I think it's very revealing, and let me tell you why. I think it says more about the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary Republican party than anything else. Put another way, McCain had to do something like this, and yet it may backfire as well.
The conservative wing of the Republican party is in firm command of this remarkable political party. The Republican party, at least since the defeat of President Bush, Sr. in 1992, has been a militant, unified, assertive, ideological party. Such parties have been rare in American history, except among third parties for a short time. The "base", in Karl Rove's term, is all. This philosophy does not reach out across party lines. It is partisan and organized and aggressive. It is based on the 51% philosophy. If Republicans stayed united, they can beat anybody, especially the Democrats, whether or not they pursue popular policies. Moderate Republicans can either toe the line of the base, or get out.
In 2004. this philosophy passed a major test, when President Bush was re-elected with a large turnout of his Republican and conservative base. Since then, the Bush presidency has collapsed, the economy has gone to hell, the Iraq war is unpopular, but the base remains.
John McCain could have run for the presidency by challenging the hold of the base on the party, as Bill Clinton did to the liberal wing of the Democratic party in 1992. But I think he determined after his defeat by Bush in 2000 that the base of his party was too strong to be defeated. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And so he resolved to be the most loyal Bush soldier possible, at the cost of his own previous beliefs. That got him the nomination in 2008, but it never won him the love of the base.
Until his party's convention, Republicans were lagging in enthusiasm compared to the Democrats. The base was sleeping, unwilling to rouse itself for McCain. McCain then took a huge gamble and picked an unknown Alaska governor, Sarah Palin. The base exploded, literally fell in love, and rushed to help McCain. For the base, the age issue now goes away. At worst, they get Palin as president!
The base has been fed and it is satisfied. But...now the problems start. Palin solved one problem, but may open up a host of others. For a few days, even a week, the media and the Democrats were completely bamboozled by the intensity of the Republican base's love for Palin, and their intense defense of her against all attacks. And yet, Palin's problems (political firings, billing the state for days spent at home and for travel by her spouse and children, lack of knowledge on major issues, etc.) are so numerous that they are beginning to emerge in the daily media accounts of the campaign.
Democrats hope that the Obama campaign is playing a very deep game, letting the string play out on Palin over the course of several weeks rather than jumping all over her all at once. We shall see. Remember, though, that when she was first announced and even when her name was circulated, Republican commentators dismissed her as unlikely and unworthy. Now that the base is on fire, those comments have turned supportive, but there was something there...
So, what we have is that the Palin nomination put McCain way back into the game, energized his base, and made 2008 a possible repeat of 2004. Don't give an inch to Democrats and independents, pound out the turnout on the right. But if a portrait emerges of Palin as an ideological extremist with all sorts of ethics problems she will undercut McCain so badly among independents and Democrats that it dooms him as well. It is hard to imagine pro-choice Jewish voters flocking to support her.
For Republican moderates who had hoped that 2008 would be the beginning of the end of the base strategy of the party, the Palin nomination must be a disappointment.
More than ever, it seems that whatever happens to the Republican ticket in 2008, the base will rule.
11 Comments — Leave your comment
August 15, 2008 | 9:09 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Wait a minute: I thought the greatest threat to the American way of life was Saddam Hussein? OK, he’s dead.
Then the greatest threat must be leaving Iraq. But now President Bush seems ready to adopt Barack Obama’s withdrawal timetable. Hold it, it’s Iran. We have to be ready to fight them right now.
And isn’t “global militant Islam” the greatest threat ever? Aren’t there new Hitlers everywhere?
Hold on…it’s actually Russia. It’s a new cold war. The Russian attack on Georgia, following Georgia’s incursion into its disputed provinces means that now Russia is our mortal enemy again. Now Putin is Hitler. But how can there be so many Hitlers?
I lived through the Cold War. There was a lot happening, and there were nuclear air raid drills. But we had one major adversary and a few minor ones at a time. What’s this constant collection of new and improved enemies and battlefronts all about? And my parents lived through the nightmare that was Hitler. Every conflict in the world is not like Hitler taking Czechoslovakia.
I think the explanation for all this lies in the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and what it did to the Republican party. The Cold War took Republicans from the margins during the New Deal to dominance of national politics. Democrats were “soft on communism,” said Republicans from Nixon to Reagan. But with the Cold War won, Republicans were adrift and divided into two camps that emerged clearly at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.
America was on top of the world, with the Soviets in collapse. How should we act in a unipolar world? The first President Bush saw our role as global networker in “a new world order,” with the occasional responsibility to punish bad behavior. His Rolodex kept him in constant touch with world leaders, and he built a massive coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Bush believed that victory in the Gulf War in 1991 would ensure electoral victory in 1992, but the fading economy foiled that plan. Democrats were largely on the sidelines of the debate among Republicans, and if anything were sympathetic to Bush’s view of America’s role.
The endgame in Kuwait opened up a rift among Republicans as a group of self-styled intellectuals and government officials began to see a different role for America: undisputed world dominance and adversary of any nation-state that would threaten America’s role. Some served under Bush, like Don Rumsfeld, and urged him to chase Saddam back to Baghdad and change the regime. Others created the Project for a New American Century, a think tank devoted to spreading American power and ideas.
When Bush, Jr. took office in 2001, these neo-conservatives (neo-cons) saw their chance. They found their way to Bush’s inner circle through vice president Dick Cheney. Bush, Sr. had blundered by thinking that Cheney would be a force for moderation in his son’s administration. Instead Cheney turned out to be among the wildest of the neo-cons, determined to reverse Bush, Sr’s philosophy. September 11, 2001 gave them an opening. The 2004 election proved to them that their plan to mobilize for war could bring about an electoral victory that had eluded the elder Bush.
The September 11 attacks immediately turned into the long-awaited and in their view uncompleted war against Iraq, even if evidence had to be faked and hysteria stoked. Colin Powell, whose heart was with the senior Bush, ended up getting used by Bush junior to make a bogus case about weapons of mass destruction and has undoubtedly never forgiven him. Meanwhile, the half-baked but appealing idea of a worldwide Islamic conspiracy against America’s values gave some coherence to a philosophy of global belligerence that shocked the people who had served Bush pere. The neo-cons were creating nothing less than a warfare state, embroiled in constant conflict and alienated from our own allies. After all, if we are going to run the world exactly as we please, whom can we really trust? This of course is the problem of all bullies.
But the Iraq war turned out to be a disaster, and has nearly destroyed the Republican party’s electoral prospects. So Iran took its place as the next enemy. No sooner had Iran gotten our attention, though, than we ended up facing off with Russia. What accounts for all this lunacy is that the particular enemies don’t matter to the neo-cons; what matters is the global dominance. Anybody could be the enemy tomorrow. What makes this most disturbing is that in the real world we actually do have some serious adversaries. They are not just rotating cartoon characters.
The Republican division continues. Near the end of his catastrophic presidency, Bush has suddenly become more like his father, favoring diplomacy with North Korea and moving to get out of Iraq. Defense Secretary Gates is in the same camp, warning against war with Iran. Powell is rumored to be thinking of endorsing Obama. So what can the neo-cons do? They always have the vice president, who is agitating for war with just about everybody. Turns out, though, that they have a secret weapon: John McCain.
As they lose favor in the late Bush presidency, the neo-cons have been drifting over to McCain, who seems to be running on a foreign policy that is more belligerent than that of the current Bush. Now they call Bush “accomodationist.” In fact, from the neo-con perspective, Bush and Obama are looking more and more like each other in foreign policy, and both are looking uncomfortably like Bush, Sr. Oddly, this common position is most likely quite popular in the nation, despite Bush’s 1992 electoral loss which was really about the economy.
The neo-cons have formed a tight circle around McCain, who seems to like their certainty about all those bad guys out there that we have to fight. Meanwhile, McCain’s chief adviser has also served as a paid lobbyist to Georgia, the independent former Soviet Republic that has been tweaking the Russian bear, perhaps with the encouragement of Cheney and McCain. McCain has built a personal friendship with the Georgian leader. Meanwhile, the other parts of the Bush team had been trying to rein in Georgia from doing precisely what it did.
When Russia invaded Georgia, the first impulse of the Bush administration was moderation. But the Republican base demanded action, and McCain is now conducting his own diplomatic mission to Georgia. The mainstream media, looking for a way back into the good graces of the neo-cons, is playing the story just like the early Iraq war. With pressure from McCain and the Republican base, the Bush administration is now becoming much more militant in confronting Russia.
If you want to keep a cool head throughout this stuff, you could do worse than to boil the whole thing down to the debate between Bush, Sr. and the neo-cons. If the USA is the world’s strongest power, should we use that power to wage war against just about everybody, or should be try to lead the world? Who exactly is going to fight these wars against an endless stream of adversaries? Should we believe what we are told by the same people who told us about the Iraq war?
If we decide to lead rather than rule, where shall we draw the line, e.g., with Russia? We obviously don’t want to see the Soviet Union reconstituted, so how shall we proceed? Is there a version of effective strength that is subtler and more effective than belligerence and bullying?
I hope before we get all whipped up into war hysteria once again that we debate the basic issue within the Republican party that got us here in the first place.
6 Comments — Leave your comment
July 31, 2008 | 6:05 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Well, about as predictably as the sun rises in the morning, Part II of the McCain camp's race card strategy kicked in this morning.
In response to their latest ad, Obama made an oblique statement about how McCain wants people to be afraid of Obama because he's not like those other presidents on our money. Right away the McCain campaign shot back that Obama is "playing the race card." Gee, think they were ready with that no matter what Obama said?
Now they'll try to sell that narrative to the campaign media, hoping that tonight's talk shows will have the graphic, "Is Obama Playing the Race Card?"
Republicans have an overwhelming interest in getting race into the campaign, and the Democrats have an overwhelming opposite interest. Without race, Republicans would be an also-ran political party. With race, they have been dominating presidential elections since 1968.
So if you're looking for a perpetrator with a motive, it's probably not the Democrats, especially a black Democrat. The trick for Republicans is to get race into the campaign, and make it look as if Obama did it. Remember the kid in elementary school who hit you under the table, and when you jumped, the teacher got mad because you made noise? Well, that's how it works.
Republicans have an edge in presidential campaigning because they understand how the campaign media work, and they have an instinct for how most white voters think about race. Campaigns are such vague and subjective events that there is a constant need for a story line to build a media narrative. They make sure to provide one on a regular basis. Is Barack Obama presumptuous? Is Barack Obama an elitist? Is Barack Obama playing the race card? Just keep them coming.
White voters have complicated views on race. There are many varieties of white voters, some quite a bit more liberal on race, and some quite a bit more conservative. Not surprisingly, white voters do not like to be accused of racism and many do not like to see other whites accused of racism. You can do something that blacks will immediately pick up as having racial overtones, but it may look very innocent to most whites. So if you can get a black candidate angry, and get him or her to accuse somebody of racism, you'll immediately hear how that white person "doesn't have a racist bone in his body." And white voters are left wondering what the black person's so angry about.
McCain has had little success getting Obama angry. Obama hasn't accused anybody of racism. So they had to grab the tiny opening in Obama's comment about not looking like people on the American currency. If Obama can keep his self-discipline, and not get into a debate over race, the Republicans will have to up the ante. If they are not careful, they may behave in a way that causes a backlash among many white voters who are more aware of overt racial appeals than the more subtle and even subliminal approaches.
So far, the McCain ads have been so clumsy, that they haven't been devastating. Right now, an ad that shows adoring crowds surrounding Obama and using that to attack him reminds of the famous Yogi Berra comment:
"Nobody goes to that restaurant any more. It's too crowded."
But they will get better.
What we don't know about Obama yet is if he is really able to transcend the fatal flaw of most Democratic presidential campaigns, nicely captured in an op-ed column by Jonathan Chait
in this morning's Los Angeles Times.
If you spend all your time defining yourself, noted Chait, you will lose. You must define your opponent.
And the only way to do that is to attack on the issues.
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July 30, 2008 | 7:56 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
I've got race on my mind today. Here we have the possibility of the first African-American president in history, and it's only a matter of time before the racial attacks kick in.
The McCain campaign is struggling on the issues, and it's only going to get worse as the public gets clued in to where McCain stands on social security, abortion, and other issues.
The "tough guys" in Karl Rove's circle have been brought in to recraft the message. At the end of the day, it'll be patriotism and race, the two standards in the Republican playbook.
I'm observing some straws in the wind, and I'll tell you what I see, in no particular order.
- John McCain just recently reversed course in order to support a voter measure in Arizona to ban affirmative action. That will allow him to move to the right on this issue. Obama will be asked again and again, "Now that you are the presidential nominee, do we still need affirmative action?" It would have been harder to do that if McCain had not been willing to abandon his own position on the issue.
- Fox News some weeks ago "inadvertently" ran a screen crawl under Michelle Obama's picture referring to her as his "baby momma." This is slang for a woman who has a man's child without being married to him. Fairly sickening, wouldn't you say? This little slur sets up the next one...
- Just yesterday, the McCain campaign aired a "funny" ad showing Obama as a celebrity, with a quick shot of two young white women, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Linking a black male candidate with young white women is a staple of the playbook, and the "call me" ad used against Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee several years ago showed the way. It doesn't work if everybody knows Obama has a solid, happy relationship with his wife and daughters. Keep attacking Michelle, though, and the Obama campaign will feel nervous about getting her out there.
- The continuing Republican push, accepted without question by the campaign media, that Obama is "presumptuous" by acting too presidential fits in the frame of the young black man getting ahead of himself. (Don't forget that only a couple of weeks ago, the supposed problem with Obama was that he was not presidential enough. Whatever...)
I think the Republicans are feeling their way right now to find a comfortable niche to exploit race. They know that African Americans are registering to vote in large numbers, and don't want to overtly push that trend even farther. They don't want to alienate moderate white voters. They are, I think, moving toward a sort of cultural slur that suggests that Obama is a slick black man, who thinks he is "better than us" because he's so well educated and articulate. They were, I think, hoping that he would be an angry black man who hates whites, but the problem is that Obama is genial, thoughtful, and coalition-oriented. And given McCain's anger management problem, that is hardly a place worth going.
Things like this are awfully hard to counter. For one thing, much of the appeal is subliminal. If a black candidate complains about race, he or she elevates race as an issue, and in the bargain looks like a complainer. Or looks angry. None of the moves are obvious enough to comprise "teachable moments" about racism.
It may seem
counter-intuitive, but a light-hearted response to these racialized
things may actually be the best and most effective response, because it
takes the sting out of them.
A black candidate is not without resources in this battle.
One is that many white voters will not respond to these appeals. Jewish voters, for instance, have long stood out for their support of black mayoral candidates when other whites were responding to racial appeals.
But the real defense is a good offense on the issues. In a time of economic turmoil, if Obama can really dig down and offer a compelling economic message to working Americans, he may well be able to counter the undertow of old racial attitudes. It sounds old-fashioned, but a real debate on the issues will be the best medicine for this race stuff. Not a high toned, elevated policy debate, but a down-to-earth, here's-how-I'm-going-to-make-your-life-better case that Democrats have failed to make election after election.
This time, they have no choice.
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July 24, 2008 | 2:40 am
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Be careful what you wish for. John McCain practically dared Barack Obama to go to Iraq, and he did, with a vengeance. He has been on a world tour, going to three key areas Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops are fighting; to Europe, location of America’s principal allies; and the Middle East, where America has a fundamental commitment to Israel and to regional peace.
By most accounts, the trip has been a huge success. Obama has seemed presidential, and has been treated as a world leader in world capitals. Media coverage has been very positive and extensive, and he has not made any serious mistakes that could undermine his foreign policy credentials.
In particular, he seems to have navigated the Israel/Palestinian/Jordan scene successfully. Of all the American voters watching this trip, nobody is more attentive than Jewish voters. Obama made all the right visits, struck the right chords (no peace agreement just to have a peace of paper), and smartly met with the right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the current government. He pushed the envelope a bit by going to Ramallah.
The most significant portion of the trip was the interchange with Iraq’s leadership. When Maliki endorsed Obama’s plan for a timed withdrawal from Iraq it placed McCain in a dreadful position. It’s impossible to argue for staying longer than the Iraqis want us to stay, unless our presence is actually an occupation. Even worse for McCain, President Bush undercut him by moving toward Obama’s position, leaning toward a “time horizon” for withdrawal.
Now McCain, who has built his campaign on unwavering support for the Bush policy of an open-ended commitment in Iraq, finds himself to the right of both Bush and Obama. The lesson? Even a president of your own party will put his own legacy ahead of you, no matter how loyal you have been. The good news for Americans? We are probably closer to ending the war in Iraq today than we were a month ago.
This world tour reminds me of the bus tour that Bill Clinton and Al Gore, along with their wives, took right after the 1992 Democratic convention. A young, untested ticket running against an older Republican in a bad economic climate lit a spark by getting out into the streets of America. Obama’s world tour works in a different way, by potentially elevating his standing from the new young candidate to the potential commander-in-chief.
It probably won’t show up in the polls right away, but Obama may have helped close the “gravitas” gap with McCain. If he does, McCain’s position becomes serious. On domestic matters, it’s a Democratic wipeout. I’d watch Jewish voters very carefully in the next few weeks. They are “canaries in the mine” when it comes to Democrats and foreign policy. Convince Jews, and you’ll win the foreign policy argument with everybody else.
And no matter how great the trip, Obama is going to have to work right through to November to close that sale.
81 Comments — Leave your comment
July 14, 2008 | 5:45 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
This Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the 2008 campaign that I feel bound to comment upon. It was in the right hand column, front page, prime location. It was a perfect example of something called framing. The title: "Obama, McCain agree on many once-divisive issues
." Subtitle: "Their similar stances on immigration, nuclear weapons, global warming and stem-cell research are evidence of a centrist shift in the political landscape."
An interesting thesis. The only problem is that it is flat wrong in almost all respects.
Yet the frame is well suited for the frame being offered by McCain's campaign. In fact, the central explanation for what the article portends to find is "McCain's record of defying the GOP party line." This assertion, which is totally irrelevant to the campaign of 2008, leads to a source saying that McCain would definitely not represent the third Bush term. (To balance it off, the same source says this centrist argument means that Obama is not as liberal as he is accused of being.)
A frame is a way of presenting something as if it were in a picture frame. Framing makes a political event into a story. Facts that fit the frame stay in, and those that don't get shoved out or reshaped. In a year that Republican ideas are in the toilet with public opinion, McCain's hope has to be to frame the issues as basically consensual. The frame of a centrist American political system with everybody crowding toward the middle is very popular with pundits, even though the evidence for its existence is very weak.
In order to make this frame apply to a race in which Obama and McCain disagree on almost everything, the reporters have to cut, squeeze, add, and in general fix up the facts to fit the frame. So on Iraq, global warming, Russia, immigration, and wiretapping, they make the case work for the frame in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
- On Iraq, the story states that the candidates have moved closer because McCain, who once talked about a 100 year war, now claims to be ready to get out by 2013, and Obama says he will listen to the military on how to get out in 16 months. Neither candidate has changed their basic view: Obama wants to end the war as soon as possible, and McCain wants to stay until "victory" is achieved. A huge difference.
- Both favor a cap and trade system on global warming. But McCain has indicated that his system would be voluntary, which makes no sense, since there is nothing to trade in that case. This is a big difference.
- Both favor stepped up negotiations with Russia? Are you kidding? McCain has talked about tossing Russia out of the G-8 group. This is a major difference.
- On eavesdropping there is indeed some shifting, by Obama, who backed the FISA bill. But he still opposes telecom immunity, which McCain supports. That's basically the major issue.
- And on immigration, they are said to be "converging." Huh? McCain now says he would have voted against his own legislation on immigration.
The problem with the story is that McCain is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a genuine and consistent moderate Republican. If Obama were running against Arnold, the frame would not be terribly far off, except on some economic issues. (And I think a genuine Republican moderate would be extremely difficult to beat, even in a bad year for Republicans.)
McCain's campaign depends on convincing people that he is like Arnold, even while adopting actual policies to please his conservative base. The perfect frame for McCain would be to be free to adjust his policies to fit right wingers while still being described as a maverick for things he said years ago and that bear no relevance to the current race.
And that, folks, is framing in a nutshell.
Look for iit.
Columnist Marty Kaplan has his own take on the Times
and owner Sam Zell
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