Sunday, 28 September 2008

The presidential race: all change

But change is not a destination. The Wall Street crash sharpens the question, ‘Where to?’

No matter who wins the U.S. presidential election, there will be change. In fact, in this campaign year, there has been nothing but. The 2008 presidential race kicked off earlier than ever, the day after the 2006 mid-term election. That was the first of a whole year of unprecedented campaign events.

The first African-American and woman candidates to run for the highest office are the obvious. A few others: More states moved up their primaries than ever before, producing ‘Super-Duper Tuesday’ (remember that?) in a breathless pace of campaigning for a large field of candidates. We saw a record number of dizzying debates within the two political parties that included the first-ever YouTube electronic participants, and niche debates on specific concerns of the gay community, Hispanics, the Black Caucus debates, a religion forum or two, and a Values Voters Summit.

Modern culture breeds short attention spans, so that all seems like the distant past already.

Other distinctions may be forgotten, like how often the pundits were wrong in predicting the outcome of all of the above. They scrambled afterward to figure it out more often than not. Ubiquitous media delivering news content on endless cycles must keep up, but they just barely did or do. So much has been new in this election year that each day’s news cycle risks being outdated by the time the story makes print. Good opportunity for cable TV and online sites.

The inevitability of Obama

We forget that the inevitability of Hillary Clinton turned into the inevitability of Barack Obama…quickly. Question: Who knew anyone could possibly defeat the powerful Clinton political machine? Answer: Whoever was paying attention to the powerful network and on-the-ground organization Obama was quietly putting in place from the earliest days of the campaign.

Remember when the Rev Jeremiah Wright burst onto the national news with his controversial sermon tirades, and Obama defended him before he denounced him? In between those two press conferences, he held the riveting one in Pennsylvania on “Race in America”, when everyone (or at least the press) was thrust into a wrenching national debate. Seemed it would stay with us for the duration.

But we either healed or moved on, because more was changing all the time. Hillary Clinton pulled close in the final primaries and proved more challenging to Obama than even his campaign counted on. The press really missed that one.

We certainly remember Obama’s world tour starting in the Middle East and wrapping up with adoring throngs in Europe, where he’s been enormously popular and where he polls far higher than his opponent. Since when do we take polls in Europe on the U.S. presidential elections? That may be another first. It didn’t go over so well in the U.S.

Meanwhile, where was John McCain? Trying to find news coverage of McCain’s travels and appearances became like playing “Where’s Waldo?” He was stumping across the bread-and-butter, blue collar states steadily while Obama was in Europe. News of McCain was scant. But McCain knew that would change.

When the media played the “veepstakes” game, they got that wrong, too. Joe Biden was an unlikely pick until Russia invaded Georgia, and his foreign policy experience stopped a vulnerable gap in Obama’s candidacy. But as one network pundit saw it, “the party of ‘change’ picked a candidate for vice-president who came to Washington when Nixon was in the White House”, so would the “change” message lose some authenticity?

It has endured as Obama’s slogan and promise, mainly because he has inspired the hope of healing and unifying the country on the sheer strength of his convincing rhetoric. But on the night of his highly anticipated acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, on a grandiose set that re-created the White House in a stadium of about 80,000 people (certainly another first), he dropped the charm offensive and finesse that carried him that far, and launched an attack on John McCain.

Stealing his thunder

If there was any thunder in it, the next morning McCain stole it. At an arena in Dayton, Ohio, McCain introduced Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate and stunned the nation. Obama’s speech (and convention) was all but forgotten, instantly. Until that moment, few outside of Alaska had ever heard of her, though pro-life media had done stories on her in April after Governor Palin gave birth to a Down’s Syndrome baby and returned to work, taking him to the office with her. There was a minor uproar in a small circle of feminists at the time, but it didn’t hit the major media radar.

Her speech in Dayton went off the Richter scale. Suddenly, the lone celebrity of the U.S. elections had a rival, a woman, and she rocked the Republican base and social conservatives like nobody since Ronald Reagan. She threw the media into a tailspin, most of it more like a frenzy. And that was on day one.

The first woman named to the Republican ticket was change that didn’t fit the feminist mold, mostly set by Sixties feminists and liberal elites, and the level of rage unleashed against Palin has been virtually unprecedented. It probably infuriates her enemies even more that she doesn’t care about liberal, elite opinion.

Waiting to hear Palin’s speech at the Republican convention heightened the drama and intensified the pressure on her. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani primed the crowd with a rousing speech about their Democratic opponents. For the first time, it seemed, criticisms could be leveled at Obama without being accused of being racist. “Change is not a destination just as hope is not a strategy,” Giuliani said, and the crowd roared.

Obama no longer owned the “change” mantle, though he wore it and hung around McCain’s neck the mantra that he represented “four more years of Bush”. It wasn’t working outside Obama circles.

Palin’s speech was as far outside the Washington elite circle as possible for a qualified candidate. “She brought it to Barack Obama,” Charles Krauthammer said just afterward. What did she bring? A charming, but forceful and unapologetic offensive on the politics of rhetoric. “In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,” she said, late in the speech. “And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.” The crowd went wild.

Afterward, veteran newsman Chris Wallace said “This was the single most compelling Republican argument I’ve heard,” and the base was suddenly electrified. It was also change the Democratic party didn’t count on.

But the pragmatic thing about “change” is that it’s undefined and malleable and applicable to any shift whatsoever. So Obama shifted. At the top of the Democratic ticket, he was suddenly running against the new celebrity at the bottom of the Republican ticket. Gender became what race had been earlier in the year, but with a major change in that public debate: the language used about Palin has been vitriolic and hateful. Usually, that level of rancor is saved for the “comments” section of blogs and websites.

In fact, double standards have entered the race in a new way. Consider this last line of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog post called “The Palin/McCain ticket”: “[The] fact that so many in the GOP have embraced her as their party’s future suggests they don’t care a whit about substance but are enthralled by the package.”

Never mind that style over substance has fueled Obama’s ascendancy, which has admittedly not even bothered his most ardent supporters. And he’s running for president.

From narrative to definition, please

Recently, Globe and Mail writer Rex Murphy ran a piece that asks “How’s Barack Obama’s narrative going?” He analyzes the message of “change” and how it has…changed. Recall, he says, that Obama wrote this of himself: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Murphy artfully describes the candidate by his own terms. “If there was any meaning to that fortune-cookie poeticism that ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for,’ it was that his campaign was a feedback loop. People saw what they came to see. Mr. Obama was the slate; the crowds brought their own chalk… “People project their best wishes on him, they fill in the blank of a very attractive and plausible outline. His is not, emphatically, a charisma of deeds. For what has he done, save run for president? He is an accommodating vessel – cool, smart, biracial and ‘unfinished.’ This is the Gatsby quality of him…Like Gatsby, he is a receptacle of others’ glamorous invention.”

But that has changed, too, in recent weeks. “Of late, the flash supernova of U.S. politics is seen ‘competing’ with a second-on-the-ticket female governor of a remote state,” Murphy observes. “There’s more than a gap between the ‘audacity of hope’ and ‘lipstick on a pig.’ The mouth that spoke the first phrase should not be capable of the second.”

It is revealing, this change. “He has shrunk into a combative partisan… A candidacy that leached so much of its energy and drive from the imagination of others, Gatsby-like, is shedding its gift. The narrative stage is over. It’s all tactics from here on in.”

With the US in an epic financial crisis just over a month out from the elections, tactics are crucial, but they’re not everything. Perception and emotion have tremendous power in political and financial decisions, and whoever is seen as the most capable leader during these nearly unprecedented times will prevail. The promise to “change” the system is not enough….define it, people are now asking.

Since voters tend to have a short memory, there’s usually an ‘October surprise’ to brace for, revelations of some scandal or fatal flaw. The Wall Street crisis pretty much took care of that. But before this gets posted, that may change, too.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. Until recently, she hosted the popular national radio shows The Right Questions and Issues and Answers on Relevant Radio. She blogs at