Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Death Match 2004: Selling Campaign Stories

It was obvious that a Presidential Death Match had begun in 2004 when CNN interviewed Martin Sheen, TV’s Jed Bartlett, a former New England governor presiding as president in The West Wing. This was January, and the topic was his endorsement of Howard Dean, an actual former Vermont governor front-running to the Democratic nomination.

The tip-off wasn’t just the eerily similarities, down to medical doctor wives, but rather the effortless melding of real and fictional worlds, a hallmark of solid info-tainment.

As a Vermonter, I was admittedly biased, and, to a point, welcomed prime time exposure for my home state. There was my old friend Howard Dean, playing a feisty outsider, challenging unilateral war, riding the Internet and a wave of anti-incumbent anger in an episode of My Big Fat Media Caucus, the popular quadrennial mini-series in which quirky Iowans search for Mr. Right Now. This year they selected Barack Obama.

But groups like the Club for Growth had different story lines in mind. In early 2004, The Club came up with a pilot designed to turn Dr. Dean Goes to Washington into a horror-fantasy, tentatively titled Freak Show. In an ad released by the conservative anti-tax group shortly before the crucial Iowa caucuses, two actors, playing an elderly couple, were asked to describe the threat looming over the country. Responding directly to the camera, the “husband” said, “Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading…” Then the “wife” jumped in with, “body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.”

Strong stuff, a perverse yet brilliant blend of dark comedy and cultural hate speech. It was so effective that the Club didn’t even have to pay for much airtime. The news networks were more than willing to provide free play. As CNN’s Judy Woodruff explained on Jan. 9, “This is so catchy, we love to run it over and over again.”

Club for Growth President Steve Moore readily admitted that the goal was to re-brand Dean as a tax-hiking elitist. The theme would have been developed further if Dean had become the nominee, and has been cleverly recycled in 2008 to fit Obama. Columnist Austin Bay further outlined this script in a mid-January 2004 essay, arguing that Dean was the candidate of “that cadre of angry American leftists struggling with a nasty case of '60s nostalgia and their failed elitist ideology.” In this version of the race, narcissist baby boom radicals were using “pop socialism” to extend “government coercion.”

“These ‘progressives’ wish America were France,” Bay wrote. “Whether tenured in the Ivies, ensconced in editorial positions or pulling in trial lawyer and Hollywood bucks, these late middle-age Volvo drivers long for L'Age D'Or, when smoking dope and calling US soldiers babykillers made you ‘hip’." Calling the idea that the US war on Iraq might have been a mistake another sign of “tie-dyed dogma,” he concluded that the Dean campaign was dangerous “brain-zapped foolishness.” You could smell the hostility.

Despite all the spin, however, the glaring non-issues of Death Match 2000 were emerging as THE issues this time around. Four years earlier, neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore mentioned the growing poverty and insecurity that accompanied the global push for privatization, deregulation, and reducing the scope of government. The benefits of "structural adjustment" were considered a given, with the costs written off as aberrations or failure to embrace the magic of capitalist democracy. In 2004, almost every Democratic candidate talked about corporate abuse, re-regulation, and reforming trade deals to protect labor rights and the environment.

Equally significant in 2000 was the lack of debate over resurgent US militarism. The candidates had little to say about recent or upcoming military adventures – from Yugoslavia, Iraq, and the Sudan to Afghanistan and Colombia – and basically agreed about the legitimacy of using unilateral force, as well as plans to militarize outer space. War and peace were only mentioned in terms of US strategic advantage. In 2004, how and when the US should go to war was a central political question.

Yes, we’d come a long way. In 2000, the hit of the season was Fistful of Mullah. In that tongue-in-cheek horse opera, George W. played the Man with No Scruples, blowing away his bible-slinging rivals with expensive silver bullets – that is, until he played the Jesus card and discovered that El Dorado was place called Family Values. Call it an Ersatz Western, kind of Kung Fu meets Dynasty. That of course led to the Fall 2000 mega-hit, The Stealing of the Presidency.

Personally, I preferred Millennium Man, a slow-moving sci fi saga in which Al Gore played The Chosen One, a loyal cyborg struggling to overcome his programming, meanwhile battling Bill Bradley as Morpheus, an athlete-turned-pol with the power to lull people into a false sense of hope. Clever, but ultimately not convincing.

But that’s just history, and when you’re attending a Death Match the last thing you worry about is the past.

For the media, the first question about most of their prospective stars is how he or she comes across on the tube. The next – more important than knowing about their positions – is whether they’re capturing sufficiently high ratings to get picked up for the second season. The punditocracy talks endlessly about each candidate's fundraising ability, as if that’s the main qualification for office. In 2000, when Dan Quayle dropped out, he admitted the reason was essentially that Bush's $50 million plus war chest proved he was the best man for the job. Small change by today’s standards. In 2004, fundraising was the first bar Dean had to jump to be taken seriously. It’s treated like the most important public opinion poll.

To make an impression, the candidates also must turn themselves into stereotypes. If they don't do it, pundits and talk show hosts will. The name of the game is image management. Thus, in 2004 Kerry became the war hero, Clark was the thoughtful general, Edwards pushed his working class success story, Gephardt zealously defended the Clinton faith, Lieberman played the outraged moderate, and Dean passed for a straight-talking outsider. The descriptions had little to do with reality, or anyone’s actual qualifications for the job.

Next: Caucus Survivor – Out-spin, Out-pander

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