Flip-flopper. This phrase may very well have lost Kerry the 2004 presidential campaign and given us all the pleasure of four more years of the Bush administration. For months the Republican party hammered on the issue—from party-wide stunts like distributing flip-flops to delegates at the summer convention, to ads like Windsurfing—and proved that labels can be impossible to shed. In the realm of political ads, message discipline allowed the RNC and Bush campaign to create Kerry’s own narrative and frame his image within their created discourse. It didn’t matter how misleading the facts were or that Bush’s own voting record revealed the same propensity to “flip-flop”—ultimately, all that mattered was that much of the public believed Kerry lacked strength and conviction, that he was too weak to lead such a troubled country. The stubborn attachment to message is a Bush (and Republican) hallmark, and in recent years it has enabled both to wield considerable control over Washington. Bush has come to represent a cohesive set of values that, despite all those who may vehemently oppose everything he stands for, proves that he is indeed a symbol of something.
For the same reason, Barack Obama is winning the presidential race. He stands for one idea—change. Pollster site fivethirtyeight.com, which aggregates many of the important national and state polls, estimates Obama’s chances of winning at 98.1% as of November 3rd. Clearly, someone in the Democratic party has finally caught on. Obama’s narrative has been unwavering and his campaign has followed the principle of discipline, becoming one of the best-run and most methodical of recent years (unlike John McCain’s, which has proved unwieldy and clumsy). His negative ads consistently paint McCain as just like Bush, as anything but a maverick, thereby emphasizing how different an Obama presidency would be. Obama’s most recent media feat was a thirty-minute, primetime infomercial that connected personal struggles and the nation’s economic crisis with bad policies of the past. Rather explicitly, Obama calls for a fundamental shift in American policies. Of course, in Obama’s narrative, he is the only channel for that transformation. Now that voters are sick of the Bush regime, tired of being told to fight a losing, chaotic, selfish war, and terrified of the looming depression, a fundamental change is not something terribly transgressive. It’s welcome, needed, and one of the few options that allows for optimism.
McCain’s campaign has suffered from the kind of inconsistencies and off-message flailings that are absolutely antithetical to the campaigns of both Bush and Obama. After many of his senior staffers walked out (primarily due to infighting), he was left to try and reconstruct some kind of cohesion with the remnants. At first, he was positioned as the veteran and staunch countryman, than as the maverick, than as the down-home alternative to the celebrity of Obama…and finally, it seems, as a desperate mishmash of whatever positive qualities he may have. Still, as Bush proved in 2004, you can’t win after someone else has already determined the discourse of the race. You can’t offer the same promise of change when someone else has done it first and has done it better. Choosing Palin as running mate could have been a game-changing move—had she managed to never open her mouth. She represented the political rebel McCain had claimed to be. Had she proven to be a smart, sharp, natural talent she may very well have brought the legitimacy McCain’s claims needed. Unfortunately (for McCain), she was unable to rise to the challenges a national political career demanded. In fact, she embodied the very qualities of inexperience and political naivety McCain had tried to pin on Obama. Left with a failed message, an incoherent campaign, and an inability to McCain’s enormous slippage in the polls seems inevitable.
In today’s media-saturated environment, political ads have certainly risen to be some of the most influential means of structuring a message and narrative. Ever since the DNC ran the now-infamous “Daisy” ad in September of 1964, where a little girl’s image and voice is destroyed by a nuclear explosion (the seeming consequence of electing Barry Goldwater), ads have become integral component of every campaign. Examining some of this race’s major ads further highlights the difference between the strategies of the McCain and Obama campaigns—and provides further evidence of how the two are binary opposites in terms of cohesion, discipline, and structure.
While not all the ads are negative, as Obama claimed in one of the presidential debates, McCain does seem to obsessively focus on his opponent rather than on himself. Throughout, it is striking how many of the ads begin with melodramatic music and foreboding drumbeats (“Celeb,” “Taxman,” and “Housing Problem,” to name a few). The ads attack Obama for various offences, forming no clear and concise front against him.
On July 31st, “Celeb” aired and caused a stir on both sides of the political divide. Comparing Obama to vapid celebretards like Paris Hilton, it marked one of McCain’s first outright attacks on Obama’s cultural status and relationship to the media. It also questioned whether Obama was really ready to lead. By August 1st, McCain had gone even further in the online-only ad “The One”. This rendered Obama as more than celebrity—it mockingly implied that Obama was being treated as a Christ-like figure and went so far as to use a clip of a Ten Commandments Charlton Heston shouting “Behold his mighty hands!”
Around the time Sarah Palin was chosen as his running mate, the McCain campaign was forced to find a new dialogue of attack. Palin became just as much a celebrity as Obama, if not more so. In “Housing Problem,” and “Chicago Machine” the campaign instead began to question Obama’s associations, implying he was corrupt and shamelessly accepted political bribes. The campaign began cast Obama as an unknown whose devious connections meant he was under the control of some shadowy figures. Parallel to these, McCain began airing ads like “Original Mavericks,” that catalogued his own achievements in fighting political corruption.
In a recent New York Times piece, Robert Draper chronicled “The Making (and Remaking) of John McCain,” which emphasized the constant shifting, redefinition, and failures of the campaign. Like Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000, McCain has struggled against a dialogue in which the terms have already been defined. In the past few weeks, the campaign has laboured to find a solid point of attack. Their most effective argument—that Obama had little experience—now pertained to their own vice presidential pick. Yet, McCain has soldiered on, producing spots like last week’s “Special” which makes the weak case that Obama isn’t ready. Yet.
After accepting the democratic nomination, Barack Obama did not change his campaign strategy—just the tactics. He was already a symbol of change and thus only had to define McCain as “more of the same.” His ads became sharply focused on connecting McCain to George Bush and continued to emphasize his own historic and revolutionary status.
July’s “Old Politics” criticized a McCain ad for being part of the same political game that had been played for years. August’s “Original” threw doubt upon the maverick claims, incorporating a recent clip of McCain saying he voted with George Bush nearly ninety percent of the time. In October, “Rearview Mirror” used some obvious symbolism to connect McCain with backward-looking Bush policies.
The campaign’s negative ads did not just attack McCain, they juxtaposed McCain either with images of Bush or images of Obama. They continuously defined McCain through some exterior political context, making retaliation very difficult. McCain couldn’t comment on these ads without first extricating himself from the system they created. He couldn’t define himself without first defining Bush and Obama. He was stuck in the narrative the Obama campaign created and this is why, hours before any election results are verified, I will congratulate President Obama.
ETA: I had to share this quote from Gawker. It’s referring to JFK and his similarity to Obama: ” His election — from its beginnings in the famous televised debate with Richard Nixon — was about creating a cultural image that Americans could comfortably desire.”