Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I have issues with issues ...

If you're looking for political wonk talk, don't look here. It's not that I don't care ... or that I don't recognize the importance of staying current on the important issues of the day, but let's be serious. Issues don't win elections.

They may have at one time ... but not now. These days it's all about perception. And as any who understands this sort of thing can tell you, perception is reality.

Without giving myself away entirely, if issues won elections, we'd be faced with judging our current president on the fact that he did in his third year what George W. Bush couldn't do in eight: capture/kill Osama bin Laden.

Think about that. Whatever led up to it, and however much President Obama may have built off the efforts of our previous president, the facts are that bin Laden's demise came on Obama's watch.

That's an issue. That's a fact, But like issues, facts don't win elections either.

 It's a fact that in 2008, just as the election was upon us, the economy took a giant downturn that we hadn't seen since the Great Depression. Things are far from good today, but they're not nearly as bad as they were on the morning Barack Obama took office.

Again. It's really hard to dispute this. It's also hard to convince any intelligent person that the ebbs and flows of the economy rely on vagaries that most of us can only speculate ... and that in the end, whatever happens with it is only partially the result of whatever the president has done with it. After all, Obama is only the president of this country. He doesn't run Greece, and he hasn't had a thing to do with messing up the European and Asian markets that everybody always points to when the stock market has a bad day.

These are general facts ... and they don't rely on the type of minutia wonk-ese that the talking heads try to use on Sunday mornings ... or on FOX, MSNBC or CNN. Mitt Romney tried to take a page out of Ronald Reagan's book when he asked if we really thought we were better off today than we were four years ago.

Yes, actually. We're not swimming in prosperity.  But we're not going down for the third time either ... at least we're not in as much danger of doing that as we were four years ago.

All of the above doesn't make Obama the greatest president ever. But he's certainly not the abject failure Romney and the Republicans would like you to believe he is.

But the point of all this is that none of it matters to a large part of the electorate anymore. Our perceptions of Obama, and Romney, come from much more visceral sources: television advertising.

I know ... news flash, right? One of the first things I learned as I got to be old enough to talk about these things is that if you listened to the Kennedy-Nixon debate (as opposed to watching it), Nixon probably did better ... had more command of the issues. But of course JFK looked so cool, so smooth on TV beside Nixon's scowling five-o'clock shadow that in the minds of most people, JFK won the debate hands down.

That was in 1960. We've had 50 years to refine scripted and rehearsed political discourse. Now, if a candidate isn't out there raising money all the time, he/she runs the risk of being out-spent on TV advertising, which -- in turn -- gives him/her no shot at all. This can often put incumbents at a disadvantage because if there is a serious issue to deal with, the opposition can score cheap points by bellowing that "the president's too busy to raise money to give all his attention to (whatever it is)."

Of course he is. If he wasn't, he'd get swamped.

There are so many built-in problems with this that I don't even know where to begin. The biggest one, though, is that there's not a single honest thing in those ads. They're full of glittering generalities ... both in efforts to make the ad's sponsor look like a saint; and the opponent look like Beelzebub himself.

Example: Don't you love ads in which the narrator says the opponent's name with the same virtiol he'd use if he were talking about cleaning up cow dung in the barn. Or how about the horribly acted spots where two "ordinary" people are discussing the issues over the dishes. "O-BA-ma wants to shove gay marriage down our throats."

It's just as bad the other way. Mitt Romney hasn't paid income taxes since Christ was a kid. He's so privileged he doesn't know what it's like to be sick, to be in debt, or to stand in line in the supermarket.

Actually, to lose the moment for the moment and actually get political, Romney's gaffe in which he seems to write off 47 percent of the American public (his words) as not worth his time and effort did more to harm him than any nasty ad by any Democrat PAC could. Because what it did was give the Democrats the hammer to hit him over the head with for the next two months.

There's an old rule or survival that says that there's nothing you can do about people who inherently wish you ill, and who will use every resource they have to clobber you with negative propaganda. but there's nothing that says you have to give people the hammer. Well, he gave them the hammer.

The only comparison I could use to illustrate how utterly, insanely stupid that was would be if Obama ended one of his speeches with "workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains."

(For the unfamiliar, the above quote is the popular -- but not quite authentic -- translation of the last line of Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto." And no, Karl Marx is not part of the comedy team of brothers of the same name.)

All that would to do is emphasize, much more effectively than any ad, that Obama is the socialist -- or at least has socialist sympathies -- his opponents have relentlessly complained he is.

But back to the screed at hand.

I submit that we've come to rely so little on actually substance ... actual issues ... that this is the dawning not of the Age of Aquarius, but the Goebbelization of America.

Putting aside the abominable immorality of what the Nazis stood for, anyone with an interest in propaganda and how it can twist even the most rock-solid facts into something you wouldn't even recognize should study Josef Goebbels, the absolute king of propaganda. People ignorant of history should also note that Adolf Hitler did not come to power at the hands of a gun, but as the result of a long, careful and patient propaganda campaign that sought to paint him, and his part, as the only viable alternative.

Hitler rose to power that way ... and stayed in power that way. You don't wake up one morning and decide to exterminate 6 million Jews ... and you don't build up enough allies to pull off such a horrendous attempt at genocide without filling the hearts and minds of otherwise normal, decent people with such fear and hate that such a heinous crime against humanity would be in any way acceptable.

Of course, there are parallels in this day and age. Nobody gets on an airplane with plans to hijack it and crash it into a building without that same hate and rage ... and that just isn't innate. There's a wonderfully prescient song from "South Pacific" that says "You Have to Carefully Taught" to hate.

So true,

We can only hope that whatever propaganda machines churn out here, they're not as horrendous as what happened in World War II. But at the same time, there's no point denying Mark Twain's adage that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes" either. And these days, you can include -- or even substitute "spin" for "lie." We'd all like to think we've come much too far to resort to out-and-out smear tactics, but all you need do is go back to 2004 when a group of "Swift Boat veterans" obviously partial to George W. Bush attacked John Kerry by grossly misrepresenting his military record.

Whether it hurt Kerry to the point where it cost him the election is certainly subject for debate, but what it did do was force him to spend money to defend himself against the attack ... and it was timed during a stretch of the campaign that came at the conclusion of the Democratic convention (after which Kerry was bound by law to spend only a certain amount of money) but before the GOP convention (which meant the GOP was still free to spend as much money as it could). As a result, the ad cost Kerry capital, both political and financial,

As a result, the term "Swift-Boated" as gone down as a term that describes "smeared."

Not that the Democrats are any less guilty of such attacks. Nobody's proven Mitt Romney hasn't paid his income tax since Christ was a kid (except that his stubbornness in releasing such information doesn't make him look innocent, either). And the glee in which the Democrats have made sure the Romney "47 percent" video has gone viral is fairly evident too.

These are the things that decide elections, sadly. During the 2000 campaign, Al Gore looked like a walking zombie half the time. He was stiff, unnatural, and unable to connect with people in an ordinary sort of way. He was a wonk's wonk. But wonks don't run the country. All wonks do is work silently behind the scenes.

Bush came across as a guy you'd want to sit next to at the baseball game and swap stories with it. Just an ordinary guy. He connected. This, in itself, is scary because if that's all it took to be president then Don Rickles would have been elected years ago. But this isn't the argument today.

Issues don't win elections. What succeeds is the incessant twisting of them in ways that reflect either badly on your opponent and superlatively on you. It comes down to the success (or failure) when it comes to defining your opponents before they can define themselves. First impressions generally last. The earlier you can get it out there that Obama's a socialist, or that Romney's silver spoon is so grotesquely big that it's blinded him to the human condition, the easier it gets to put each other on the defensive. And all that results is a campaign full of grade-school name calling. And if there is an issue to be discussed, it's usually the one that's easiest to split in two so as to divide people and incur outrage. Abortion. Gay marriage. Illegal immigration. Welfare. Taxes. We call them wedge issues.

With all this going on, there's very little intelligent discussion about the nuances of issues anymore. And more important, no discussion by anyone about what course of action to take to solve some of them.

Is it any wonder why so many people are disillusioned by the political process?

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