Monday, September 15, 2008

There's Something About Sarah

So, the shock of Sarah Palin has thrown the Obama campaign off message. Instead of advancing its agenda the campaign has been wasting time trying to demean and diminish the GOP vice presidential candidate. Everyone seems to agree that this is a bad tactic.

Epitomizing this failure is the image of the pig with lipstick. Did Obama mean to slight Palin? Did he intend to insult her?

Take the facts as we know them. Sarah Palin's signature, her brand, even her totem... is the image of the hockey Mom as a pitbull with lipstick.

Any reference to an animal with lipstick in the course of this year's presidential campaign must refer to the Palin brand. Unless you believe that the Obama campaign is being run by a bunch of dimwits, they clearly felt the need to diminish the appeal of the brand, by putting a different image in people's minds. Every time Palin says "pitbull" the Obama campaign wants people to think: "pig." You might have noticed that pig and pit sound alike.

Some have insisted mightily that Obama's remark did not refer to Palin. Relying on a legalistic parsing of the text they have demonstrated that when Obama used the word "pig" the immediate referent was not Palin. But, so what. Given the larger context, given the totemic force of the image, everyone-- and that means everyone-- understood what he meant.

You don't have to be a mind reader to know it. Here's the way you can tell. In normal conversation when you make a slip that might be understood to be offensive, you apologize. If you do not apologize, then the correct inference is that you meant it, that it was intentional.

Last week the issue was not the Obama agenda for change; the issue was the Obama campaign. Obama had claimed that he had demonstrated executive ability by running a flawless campaign. He even managed to say that his campaign was bigger than the city of Wasilla, thereby seeming even more disrespectful for failing to acknowledge that Palin is the sitting governor of Alaska.

The media has chimed in with a barrage of attacks on Palin. The problem with these has been simple: if Obama is really a strong leader why does he need so many media surrogates defending him. The extent of the media attacks on Palin signifies Obama's weakness.

In this regard the media's top gun was Charlie Gibson. Place Gibson's Palin interview in a larger context. Remember that during the Democratic candidate debates Gibson once asked Obama a question that flummoxed him. He asked why Obama was saying the increased capital gains tax rates would increase government when everyone knew that just the opposite was the case. The higher the cap gains rates, the lower the revenue generated.

Obama did not know how to answer. He had never considered this possibility. No one is perfect.

The more important point is that, for his pains, Charlie Gibson was viciously attacked by his fellow media mavens. People who have tossed out their journalistic integrity to promote Obama did not want to see anything like that ever happen again. So they heaped opprobrium on Charlie Gibson as a warning to him and to anyone else who might dare ask Obama a difficult question.

Gibson certainly learned his lesson. The next time he interviewed Obama, one-on-one, his questions were therapy culture softballs: "How does it feel to win?" "How does it feel to break to break a glass ceiling?" "How does your family feel about your winning?"

Obviously, these questions are insulting. Gibson was treating the candidate as though he would melt away if he ever had to address a substantive issue. Clearly, Charlie Gibson had been brought back onto the reservation.

He had a better chance to demonstrate it when he interviewed Sarah Palin last week. Of course, he was looking for a gotcha moment. He was looking to diminish the new phenom, especially for her shaky command of foreign policy. A report this morning also suggested that ABC set up camera angles to make her look smaller in relation to him. The New York Times declared that his attitude was "supercilious."

The ultimate curve ball was the question about the Bush doctrine. Clearly, Palin was not sure what it was, so Gibson could look down his nose at her-- literally-- and explain it.

She did not look good. The problem is: Gibson got it wrong himself. The first person to use the phrase, Charles Krauthammer, wrote an article explaining that there were at least three different interpretations of the Bush doctrine.

Unfortunately, the news did not reach Obama supporters. They spent three days railing about Palin's inexperience, not yet having realized that experience is not a great issue for their own candidate.

While Obama's supporters were throwing up a fog of drama to obscure the McCain message, they were obscuring their own.

Watch the entirety of the Palin interview and you will see that outside of foreign policy she was completely on message and mostly in control of the material. She articulated the campaign agenda clearly and precisely: lower taxes, more drilling, controlled spending, earmark reform, victory in Iraq.

As I said in an earlier post, called Forever Nuance, voters are more likely to prefer a clear policy agenda over one that is more complicated and more nuanced. By this hypothesis clarity matters more than right or wrong.

I will mention in passing that this idea is a variant on what philosophers call Occam's razor. The fourteenth century theologian, William of Occam, posited that if you have two possible explanations for a phenomenon and one is simple while the other is more complex, the chances are that the more simple one is closer to the truth.

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