Sunday, 5 October 2008

Best TV Show Ever

I leave the intertubes for a week and the whole world goes crazy. Even the Guardian saw fit to discuss the fact that Palin winked at the camera during the veep debate. The woman fails to blink adequately and apparently the Democrats have to enter crisis sessions. Plus we get treated to another round of "gosh, she's so plain-spoken and average, that's exactly the kind of earthy common sense we want from the person who gets to decide if we reduce Russia and then ourselves to a nuclear wasteland".

I think it may be time to admit the truth to ourselves. The GOP are so intent on turning this election into American Idol that they're freely admitting it to the press. Just two days ago, McCain's campaign said it was going to go back to "comparing" their candidate's character with Obama's. Anything to avoid dirtying their hands with anything so icky as policy.

Maybe we should give up entirely on the idea of the people of the US voting for the person they feel more qualified to deal with the country's myriad problems. It was never that likely anyway. Instead, I suggest we embrace the politics-as-entertainment in its entirety and commission The Crystal Maze: Presidential Race Edition.

Think about it! Why put up with Jim Lehrer droning on when we can have Richard O'Brien prancing around in leopard skins? Let's see Palin wink at the camera halfway through wading through sludge whilst our host plays a blistering harmonica solo! She only has three minutes to drill for oil in Anwar, and if more than two caribou herds get their migration patterns disrupted then it's an automatic lock-in! Looks like McCain picked the wrong team member for a skill game in Post-Iraq-Oil-Crisis Zone!

Then the week after, it's Obama's turn. Can he grab a dangling crystal whilst simultanously crafting the New Deal in the face of the Wall Street Crash in Great Depression Zone? Will Biden have what it takes to travel to Civil War Zone and single-handedly break the chains of three dozen slaves in under two and a half minutes? And which of the two teams will do best in the giant transparent representation of Abraham Lincoln's head, which silently cries glassy tears for the death of the country he worked so hard to keep together and make greater, as they grab for the golden actual votes and try to separate them from the silver fraudulent votes? Will McCain even realise the difference?

This is the only fair way to choose. We can even build the set in a folksy town hall, if McCain won't stop bleating about it. Then we'll make all the votes out to look like they're from Florida. All of America's proud political history, contemporary political apathy, and endless political corruption, all in two one-hour specials that are easy for Chris Matthews and his hideous synapse-free zombie-bobblehead minions of idiocy to digest. Kinda sends a thrill up the leg, don't it?

UPDATE: Oh, and my e-mail is now fixed, for those as have it.


Gooder said...

When was the last time a election campaign here or in the states was actually fought on the basis of policy?

It's all about the image now my friend.

SpaceSquid said...

I'll happily agree that image is always more important than it should be, but this latest iteration of political bitching is in a class all itself.

There have been plenty of elections on both sides of the pond that have been genuinely fought over policy differences. That's become less true in recent years in the UK simply because the two major parties have gotten closer and closer together (I remember the 2001 election involving the Tories promising to cut taxes by £8 billion, despite the margin of error for a budget being £11 billion). Even so, you'd be hard pushed to argue that the 2005 election here was about Blair's character versus Howard's. The hot topics were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the status of the NHS, and immigration. People questioned Blair's judgement based on his past form, but it was never the "he might be a Muslim/a terrorist/think he's Jesus" level of idiocy we're seeing in the States. Nor do I remember any potentially disastrous political gimmicks along the lines of the Palin pick and the subsequent line of argument that what the US really needs a heartbeat away from the presidency is Marge Olmstead-Gunderson. Once you start arguing that comparative proximity to a country makes you cogent in its political infrastructure, you've crossed a line somewhere. Labour and Conservative MPs might take sly digs at each other, but they're not accusing each other of a lack of patriotism, or of consorting with terrorists. And certainly whatever '97 was about, it wasn't just Blair vs Major, it was (to oversimplify considerably) a referendum on the ruling party, which in a two party system (effectively) is pretty much what tends to happen.

So no, over here elections are not "all about the image", though as I say it undeniably plays a role.

As to the States, Reagan's victory in 1980 was predominantly down to his commitments to greater defense spending and lower taxes. A lot more of it was to do with his assertion that under Carter too much state freedom had been lost, and that another Carter term would make that still worse. I haven't studied that election too closely so it is entirely possible that in addition he called Carter a Communist-leaning terrorist who hated America, children, American children, and Jesus, but he won the election with a legitimate and well-trumpeted manifesto that the American people decided was what they wanted. His re-election (and Bush's election in 1988) were reflections of how well the people of the US thought Reagan had done (the degree to which that was the case is another story). Bush then dropped the ball spectacularly in a number of ways, and that got Clinton in, who was far too popular in 1996 for Dole (or probably anyone else to beat). Once again, enough people were satisfied that the country was on-track that the election didn't really have to be about more than "I've got you this far, let's just keep going". I won't deny image was an important factor when discussing Bill Clinton, but that was a subtext to his campaign, not the basis of it.

The point at which image began to truly dominate was probably during the Lewinsky affair. There is an awful lot of evidence that Gore's biggest problem during his 2000 campaign was that people were mad as hell over Clinton's behaviour, a pot which the press was more than happy to stir further. 2000, 2004, and now 2008 all stand out as being a different kind of election fought in a different kind of way to earlier ones.

So, like I say, image has always been important (Kinnock in a bathing costume, anyone?) but this current obsession with windsurfing and swiftboating French-looking and fist-bumping and lapel-pinning and sighing and embellishing and Hawaii-holidaying and rejecting/repudiating is in a league all its own, and is essentially a post-millennial phenomenon.

jamie said...

I feel very insulted on Marge Olmstead-Gunderson's behalf that you could compare her with Sarah Palin.

SpaceSquid said...

Fair enough, Marge combined with a congenital liar.

And I like Marge as much as the next man, far more than I do Palin, but I'm still not sure I'd want her running an entire country. Though if it came to it, she'd get my vote before The Barracuda.

Senior Spielbergo said...

I don’t think it’s that image has suddenly become more important at all, rather I think that policy, or more accurately, differences in policy are less important. The core policies of both the Democrats and the Republicans have not changed, and both parties have put forward candidates who basically support the party line in these regards. You haven’t got a Pro-Choice Republican or a Second Amendment Loving Democrat so basically everyone who was going to vote one way or the other based on the core issues is going to stick to the usual party lines.

Now normally at the very least you would get the good old incumbent vs. the time for change candidate. But this time round the Republicans (being quite smart when it comes to election stuff) have realised that while they are the incumbent, the guy they had in place was George W Bush and he’s not too popular so they have put forward candidates and billed them as Mavericks and disagreeing with George Bush. Even saying that their candidates are the time for change candidates. So you basically have two Candidates in two parties now effectively both saying the exact same thing, “We’re the candidate for change”, not giving a lot to pick from.

So the core issues are basically not going to move any votes, the whole incumbent vs. change thing is squashed that leaves current issues for them to establish how they differ from each other. Well for the most part again they don’t distance themselves very far. Irag – One wants a pull out with a set time table, the other also wants a pull out but without a timetable. Great big tap dancing wow. Financial crisis – Both don’t want the bail out but support it as the only option, both want better regulation of these bodies in future. Yawn…

The party lines are drawn and both sides (although I would say the Republicans more so) have run straight to the centre to try and claim the undecided’s, basically leaving very little beyond, well he’s a Republican and he’s a Democrat for the middle to actually decide on. That leaves… Wait for it, wait for it… Image! So yes they really are going to prattle on about how one is a War Hero, and how good their respective candidates look in a bathing suit…

Oh and have I mentioned that Sarah Palin is really quite pretty… Clearly she should be elected…

Gooder said...

It seems I'm just more cynical on this one.

Whilst 2005 election had the wars and immigration is always popular can you actually remember what policies the parties put forward with out looking them up. And it will come down to Cameron or Brown over here (this is why Labour are having some much trouble as it's widely believed that Brown will not come out on top in that one)

They put out maifesto's but they aren't much more than soundbites. I wouldn't nessecary blame the parties either, more the nature of today's media world. With so many things competing for people's attention you have to make an impact quickly - that's why you go with the general image of your canidate. It can be done quickly and simply.

Truth is most people won't sit and watch length discussions on policy, not when they can be watching America's Most Dangerous on the other side.

Things have changed even since the 80's in these terms, the way people interact with the media how there is vastly different and I believe this is a huge factor in why things have changed.

Though it also worth noting the US election will ultimately revolve around the Iraq situation and the econonmy which are two policy based things, the name calling is just the decoration on top. Same as it's always been. (Gladstone and Disraeli were masters of it!)

jamie said...

I agree that I'd probably not want 'Margie' running a country either, but I know damn well who I'd want running a criminal investigation.

SpaceSquid said...

Spielbergo, I'm really not convinced, for three reasons. Firstly, whilst the general platforms of the parties tend to be more or less stable from election cycle to election cycle, there is certainly plenty of tweaking according to the specific candidate. Bill Clinton's health policy was different from Obama's, which is different again from Hillary Clinton's. Even McCain, 90% voting record notwithstanding, has policies that differ from Bush's (though they're aren't any better, and frequently worse, which takes some doing).

Secondly, even if the parties themselves are relatively static in their stance, the approach the voters think is best will be determined to some extent by the state of the country and the state of the world. Civil rights legislation got passed by the Democrats because there was sufficient public opinion that it was time to recognise that the colour of your skin shouldn't really affect the way the law treats you. Not that long after, Nixon swept the election because a significant percentage of people had decided that they might want blacks to have equal rights, but that shouldn't mean that they got to live next door. The parties didn't change so much as the will of the people did. Following 9/11, the Iraq war, the hideous bumbling of the New Orleans situation, and a financial crisis coupled with a frankly insane deficit, it doesn't seem too ridiculous to suggest it might be time to reconsider how each party's policies might best help the country as it is at this point. This ain't 2000 no more.

Thirdly, it doesn't really make sense to me that a situation could exist where people could be so sure about which set of policies they support they don't need to consider them, but will still choose who to vote for based on their character. They can't be that sure of where they stand policy-wise, surely?

Gooder, I will freely confess that I don't remember much of the specific policies mooted in 2005, I think that's completely beside the point. I don't remember the character attacks (such as they were) either. I do remember sitting down and watching all three leaders describe in detail their stances on the major issues, and what their individual policies would mean for those issues. The program didn't change my mind on who to vote for, but I did gain new insight into where everyone was coming from. The next election may very well come down to Cameron and Brown up to a point, but mainly in terms of "this is what Brown has done wrong and I will do differently". Cameron isn't going to accuse Brown of being disloyal, or unpatriotic, or a terrorist sympathiser. He's just going to say he made for a shit PM. Which is an entirely reasonable strategy, and which ties in to the specific policies and decisions made (or it bloody should do, if all Cameron can manage is "Brown was rubbish so there," then I'd be just as angry as I am over '08, though not least because there are any number of specific and valid criticisms Cameron can use).

The problem I think is especially obvious in America over the last three cycles. Bush's campaign assassinated Gore's character because it was very easy, especially after the Lewinsky crisis (Gore being VP at the time apparently being a good enough reason to be tarred with the same brush), and also because he didn't really have anything so advanced as a "policy" to talk about. Bush's campaign assassinated Kerry because they already knew it worked, and because the "keep staying the course" argument wasn't really working when so much had gone to shit.

McCain has a different problem. He can't use "keep staying the course" for the same reasons it wasn't too helpful for Bush and because he isn't the President. He can't use the tactics Cameron will employ because the Democrats haven't been in power for eight years. And he can't win on a policy debate and he knows it.

So he's just relentlessly, hideously, attacking. And the media is letting him do it comparatively unchallenged, which means I agree with you entirely that they deserve a great big fat slice of blame cake, too (though there is some tentative evidence that the media is starting to realise that they've managed to write, as Kevin Drum called it, "their own ticket of irrelevance").

Of course, I agree that it's always been a combination of policy and rhetoric (though that's a long way from "it's all about the image"), I'm just suggesting that recent elections in the US have been weighted the latter so much over the former (Obama can't bowl! Obama orders orange juice instead of coffee!) that it's deeply worrying.

And finally, Jamie, if HBO were to commission a series in which the Vice President also fought crime, I would watch the fuck out of it. I would also be perfectly content if MOG was the main character. Hows about that for compromise?

Gooder said...

Surely the way to combat it is for the democrats to ignore and just sell their polices, that way the story dies.

However I imagine they'll waste time and effort fighting the claims and also I imagine flinging mud of thier own.

Sadly as I said it's the quick and easy soundbite that counts today rather than in depth analysis. Still think it's the chance in the way media is communicated and comsumed that has shifted this balance more than anything the parties have done.

At the end of the day the parties have to find the best way to adapt and fit the new system, probably says something about soicety about a whole that this appears to be character based sniping.

Plus whilst we don't tend to argue over patriotism over here don't forgot that infamous demon eyed Tony poster from a few years ago. The name calling isn't exactly the same but it ain't that different either

SpaceSquid said...

Ignoring it is certainly one strategy, but the problem is the story may not die ("Al Gore is a liar" lasted through the entire election in 2000, despite it being completely bogus), and you'll look weak for not countering it. You're also just making it clear you won't fight back. The constant attack strategy has sometimes been called "Death by a thousand cuts". None of the individual allegations need to survive very long, just one or two news cycles, because then you just keep finding new lines to push. Kerry, for example, "looked French" for a bit, then went windsurfing like a fag (or something) for a bit, then was a flip-flopper for a while, then was a coward and a liar for a while after that. The idea is to generate white noise. If you ignore it you look like you're being beaten senseless, if you engage in it all you don't have time to do anything else.

The same thing has happened with Obama, the orange juice-drinking, shit at bowling, secret Muslim Messiah terrorist, whose pastor hates America even more than his wife does, and who vacations in Hawaii instead of "proper" America. Just yesterday the Republican Party Pennsylvanian HQ called him "a terrorist's best friend" in an official release. There's just an avalanche of this stuff. Some people, including myself, and from what you say I would guess you too, would see ignoring the deluge of BS as akin to tuning out a petulant child in a supermarket when you're shopping. Others, though, see it as being unable to defend yourself, a lack of strength that Mr President can ill-afford.

As to flinging mud of their own, Obama's campaign has been remarkably refrained on that score for quite a while. Following the William Ayres thing that's just (re-)broken, though, they've released a video explaining McCain's role in the Keating Five scandal. Which is essentially them saying: "Well, if you want what we did twenty years ago to be on the table, then bring it on". I am hoping with said video released Obama will go back to discussing the issues, as I'd hate to see him spending too much time in a handbag fight.

As I've said, I agree that the media allows these tactics to work, which is fairly pitiful, but it is still the candidates who choose to use them. I'm happy to rail against the press essentially abandoning all decent standards, but when Palin says "Obama is palling around with terrorists", I know who's first in line to get blamed.

And lastly, I do remember the "New Labour, New Danger" poster. The very fact that it is "infamous" is proof that we don't have the same degree of mud-slinging. It didn't usher in a new era of that level of unpleasantness, it was an aberration. Part of the reason for that, of course, is because it was judged in breach of the law by the ASA. "The celebrated Conservative Demon Eyes ‘New Labour, New Danger’ campaign in 1996 was ruled against by the Advertising Standards Authority because the clause forbidding an adverse portrayal of a person from whom prior permission to be featured in an advertisement had not been obtained was not one of those from which political advertising was exempted", as the Electoral Commission put it (the web address is too long to fit in the comments section, but search for "New Labour New Danger poster investigation" on Google and it's the eighth hit).

So yeah, we sort of dipped our toes into this crap once, but it didn't take.

jamie said...

If HBO commissioned pretty much anything I'd give it a shot, but that sounds pretty awesome. Let the pitching begin!

On another note, I watched the Election Day episodes of s7 West Wing last night, and your comments about the negative campaign the Republicans are running currently are deeply depressing in comparison to the fictional counterpart, where - numerous times - both campaigns teetered on the brink of going negative, but shied away from the cliff-face; and so the results were ultimately decided by their stances on the issues and by outside events (Leo's death, the nuclear accident, etc etc). Ah well, I suppose much fiction gives us something to strive for.

Gooder said...

I largely suspect our parties are just more subtle about it.

It certainly feels to me than when the elections come ronud they spend more time telling you how the other parties will stiff and why so and so aren't to be trusted than actually telling you what they will actually do

SpaceSquid said...

You say subtler use, I say less used. Regardless, either way it isn't the content free scum-fest over in the States. We've already discussed the complicity of candidates and the press, but there is of course also the fact that the libel laws are much more forgiving in the States, meaning you can say a great deal of unpleasant and unsubstantiated things without repercussion.