Sunday, May 25, 2008

Words Count, Really - Candidates

Let's start off with something that seems to get buried under the sturm und drang of political commentary and campaign spins; politicians live and die by the words and Obama and Clinton are professional users of language. Both are lawyers and political office holders. In law absolute precision of language is required, and a keen sense of connotation and emotional loading. In politics precision is less desirable but connotation and emotional loading are life blood. A politician who is too precise in language can easily get caught by moving events where even small adjustments look bad. The perceived meaning of words is how stage craft works, you are reached by the touch to your emotions and the illusion that it is your reason that is appealed to. This isn't to suggest that voters are idiots, this appeal is required by time frames whether they be speeches or interviews, only so much information and reasoning will fit in the time allotted.

Campaigns generally have a broad theme and underneath that, subsets, you are supposed to be drawn to a candidate enough to at least let them bring their subsets to your attention. The over arching theme for Hillary is experience and for Obama it is different politics, this is the hook, come in and see the amazing .... These hooks are very important, they cannot be let out of the control of the campaign, they must stay foremost in the voter's minds so that the subsets can be massaged to fit unfolding events. The media is both your enemy and your friend as a candidate, your words will be available to them for later contrast and comparison and it is important that it all hangs together as a consistent narrative. Thus, the broad theme stays intact and the adjustments to the subsets are justified as fitting it.

Campaigns have both advantages and drawbacks involved in their general theme - they seriously affect practical strategy. Obama's campaign theme of new politics bars some traditional approaches, attack ads and speeches are out. He cannot be seen to use traditional hard core hits on the opponent's character, he would immediately be perceived as exactly what he is campaigning against. The solution is to stay very subtle, primarily deflecting such criticism and making it look small and with an attack to do it effectively but framed so that it is not seen, a bleeding wound with no visible weapon. This puts great swathes of Hillary's own past out of reach and off-limits, a serious consideration when under attack. Hillary's experience theme places her in the realm of politics as practiced, it is part and parcel. It is the element of 'I've been there and know how this is done and how to do it.' Hillary's campaign can take off the gloves and play rough, this is how it's done.

While I may prefer Obama's approach in a Democratic Primary, both these models are valid and neither is something outre'. At some point in a campaign even these experienced propagandists are going to slip up and say something unfortunate, that's just how it is dealing with humans. Real problems occur when these slips fit into the model the campaign is using, "new politics" and "elitism" dovetail nicely and Obama has paid a large price for using shorthand and a partially completed thought expressed as "bitter" and "clinging." Hillary's campaign has walked into a couple buzzsaws, "hardworking white" is old politics of ramping up the "neglected" base and attacking the opponent by framing him as an outsider, and a disinterested one.

The collision between these models creates interesting consequences and outcomes, each candidate needs to validate their model and where they go with that is greatly determined by that main theme. One of Hillary Clinton's validations, Bill, is required by her basis of experience and others require past examples of her politics - especially ones that don't conflict with Obama's change theme. RFK and previous primaries fit that mold, she needs to connect these in the voter's minds and she has some problems. Her campaign is increasingly viewed as outlasting its point and as damaging to the Party and she needs images of the past to help with that. Never mind that politically there is no comparison that works for her, factually, image counts. RFK campaigned in June, he is a popular figure that doesn't offend "change" and most particularly for a campaign that is under attack, he was a tragic victim.

Many problems the Clinton campaign has run into are based on her usage of old politics strategies so the appeal to victimization fits nicely. She is being messed with over regular politics, which is patently unfair because this is the way things are done. Linking herself with RFK would seem to work. But then she got explicit, "assassinated" and things exploded. Obama's campaign can't go farther than "unfortunate" and must leave it lay but the media is under no such constraints.

I don't like Hillary Clinton, primarily for her short term thinking, but I won't have any truck with the idea that she wanted Obama connected with assassination. The connection was a time frame, a popular figure, and victimhood. This isn't some sort of validation of Hillary, I find it offensive that she falsely portrays herself as a victim and links herself to a true vicim. Hillary is a victim of her own construction not the media or Obama or society. Over the past 35 years she has behaved as she has and run her show as she has. Her lack of political experience has shown itself, as has her short term thinking. She has created boxes for herself that she is having problems getting out of intact and the unfairness of it all as a victim along with other victims is an avenue. Bobby, Florida, Michigan, blue collar whites, and any other she can think of at a moment will do. What is necessary is to call her on it and her cynical usage of people like FL/MI voters.

I think her supporters deserve to have the Primary elections played out, their investment in time, effort, and money shouldn't be short circuited. I don't think Hillary deserves anything. This is a ridiculous proposition, appealing to just deserts. Her misuse of FL/MI would call for her head in that case. Her nonsense that led to the '90s Republican head hunting would be tied around her neck like an anchor. Her Senate career would be over in the next election on the basis of her politically convenient votes. The stupidity of spousal entitlement would be rammed down her throat, this is politics not a divorce proceeding. Her supporters deserve consideration, not Hillary. The idea that her incompetently run ugly campaign entitles her to anything at all is ludicrous. A decent career in the Senate awaits her if she can keep herself in some kind of hand over the next couple weeks. If she decides wrecking the Party is a valid threat, she can be shown that she can be dropped into a Senate black hole.

She has served one very valid service in this Primary, the Obama campaign and Barak himself are improved by her opposition. How her strategy of hardening her supporters is going to be addressed is an open question, she may already have created an unclosable wound.


Ed Bickford said...

Chuck, we can't allow a flap such as Sen. Clinton's latest become a reason to give up comity between factions of the party.

My judgement of the Clinton campaign parallels your own, but this is politics and we have to be able to put behind us campaign tactics that rankle when it's time to close ranks and win.

As for Hiliary's gaffe, it doesn't matter to me why she explicitly raised the specter of assassination, because she has to have known better.

Chuck Butcher said...

"but this is politics and we have to be able to put behind us campaign tactics that rankle when it's time to close ranks and win."

I'll get to this real soon in an article.

Ed Bickford said...

Have a nice life.

Chuck Butcher said...

You mad at me?