creatures of politics (excerpt)

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Chapter 3 from Michael Lempert's and Michael Silverstein's book Creatures of Politics. This book explores political communication—debates, ads, interviews, speeches, and talk shows—in American presidential politics, focusing on "message"—not simply an individual’s positions on the issues, but the craft used to fashion the candidate-creature the public sees.


Creatures of

PolitiCsMedia, Message, and the aMeriCan PresidenCy

Michael Lempert Michael Silversteinand


1 Introduction: Message Is the Medium 1 2 Getting It Ju ... st Right! 58 3 Addressing The Issues 4 Ethno-Blooperology 5 Unflipping the Flop 105

6 The Message in Hand

7 What Goes Around ... 200 Notes 231

References 245 Index 257

C In opy di ri an gh a te U d ni m ve a rs ter ity ia Pr l es s122 144 170

Preface and Acknowledgments xi


Addressing The Issues

That The Issues are a hallowed discursive institution in U.S. electoral politics is suggested by the rote outrage expressed when people fail to address them. The day after the Democratic Partys twenty-first and final primary debate of 20072008, held in Philadelphia for finalists Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama aired this complaint before supporters in North Carolina: Last night, I think we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people. Irate columnists echoed Obama, like the Philadelphia Inquirers Trudy Rubin (2008), who railed against the moderators gotcha questions with no relevance to the problems we face, or Nico Pitney (2008) of the Huffington Post, who, in a bid to convince readers of the new lows to which political debates have sunk, tried his hand at quantification: he sorted policy from non-policy from scandal questions in the debates between Obama and Clinton, arguing that the more recent were scandal-heavy and policy-light.1 The moderators, concluded Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch, disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.2 Unfazed by this reflexive debate over the debate, as the kerfuffle came to be called, the Annenberg Public Policy Centers stalwart, unswerving verificationists all, continued to subject the candidate responses to the acid test of truth or falsity: Did Obama really say that he wouldnt wear a flag pin? (Yes.) Did people die from

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Cr e at u r e s of Politics

the Weather Undergrounds bombing in the 1970s, as Hillary Clinton suggested when she tied Obama to former Underground member William Ayers? (Yes, but the three who died were group members.)3 From laments over The Issues declining status and complaints that politicians and debate moderators disrespect them, and from the compensatory proliferation of issue-watching and fact-checking sites and services,4 it would seem The Issues still do matter. They matter not the least for the politicians themselves, since it is their behavior toward The Issues that is taken to reveal their Message. And what matters is not just what reportable things candidates and incumbents say about Issues, like whether offshore drilling can help America meet its energy needs or whether a path to legalization should be offered to undocumented migrants, but also how they face them: it is their manner of addressing Issues that helps create candidates brands. Which isnt to say that politicians may address Issues as they please, for there is a certain morally inflected relational etiquette brought to bear upon their behavior, an etiquette in which the sublime of authenticity looms large. To appreciate this etiquette, we must first take note of how we encounter this hallowed discursive institution. We must observe a few ways in which The Issues manifest themselves to us and consider how they matter. The Issues appear, for instance, as legible design elements on candidate websites, where they are resolved into lists of named abstract problem areas for deliberation and policymaking, such as Health Care or Education, each with attached position statements meant to distinguish candidates in a field of competition. In the forensically framed debates, The Issues appear as topics of argument that make up an institutionalized field of stance- and position-taking in which (1) candidates (again) ought to distinguish themselves, which (2)the news media and commentators ought to monitor scrupulously, and in response to such reporting (3)consumer-voters ought to base their electoral choices. The Issues are persuasive fictions on several fronts, and on each they stand as objects of cultural deference, such as national flags or icons of the Virgin or, perhaps better, like mothers-in-law before sons-in-law (as in cases of in-law avoidance that are familiar in the ethnographic record). If we

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A ddr e ssi ng Th e Issu e s



consider how fraught The Issues are as objects of address, how their very presence inspires vigilance and fear of missteps, we can consider them on analogy with so-called taboo objects, objects that present hazardsand powersfor politicians by virtue of their strong indexicality. All of this drama, where candidates and incumbents behave and misbehave before The Issuesaddressing them, avoiding themis narrated into existence by a chattering class of professional commentators known to some irreverent meta-commentators as the commentariat. The commentariats civic virtue consists in helping you, the consumervoter, choose. Through close, critical readings of candidate behavior toward The Issues, they can infer the implied voter (compare this with Isers implied reader [1974]), the constituencies that candidates must have really been addressing when they spoke or misspoke or skirted an Issue. They are the color commentators of the oft-bemoaned horse race that is electoral politics, the pace of their reportage quickening before each state-based primary election and the debates leading up to it. They review polls; chart ups and downs; scrutinize slips, gaffes, and peccadilloes. Perhaps these professional commentators are even owed the debt of emplotment, since they mark off time, serializing the campaign cycle by reviewing and previewing episodes, all in a manner and register that, in its most histrionic flourishes, seems parasitic to televised sports commentary shows like Pardon the Interruption and wildly popular Americagets-to-vote talent contests like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? If all of this seems terribly irreverent toward The Issues, it is not. For by exposing the stratagems of politicians and magnifying their successes and failures in facing The Issues, the commentariat pays deference to a discursive institution that nobody can seem to respect.

Campaign websites do try to respect The Issues.5 Back in October 2008, placed high on John McCains presidential campaign website, third from the left on the top menu bar, was an [issues] button that revealed a dropdown menu of nineteen links. Subtract the first (On the Issues) and the last (Decision Center), and what remained was a list of McCains Issue

C In opy di ri an gh a te U d ni m ve a rs ter ity ia Pr l es sGot Issues?



Cr e at u r e s of Politics

captions: American Energy, Economic Plan, Iraq, Health Care, Education, Climate Change, National Service, Homeland Security, Border Security, Human Dignity & Life, Fighting Crime, Second Amendment, Veterans, Judicial Philosophy, Technology, Government Reform, National Security. At the same time, Barack Obamas [issues] button was put in a similar spotsecond from the left on the top menu bar. His drop-down menu yielded two columns of Issues, in alphabetical order.6 The Issues are enumerable. They can be counted and gathered into a list, but as a wholeas a set that is intersubjectively shared by publics and politicians alikethey are larger than their parts. Like the formidable wholeness and gravity of the worlds literary canon, The Issues feel monolithic, but as with the storied canon debates that erupted in the 1980s, there is a whole politics surrounding the question of which Issues get included and excluded. McCains Second Amendment Issue had no analogue in Obamas list of Issues, for instance, while Obamas Katrina Issue had no place in McCains. More often tensions turn on how an Issue is named. Quite a few names for Issues from 20072008 could be calibrated across candidate websites (Government Reform [McCain] vs. Cleansing Washington [Obama]), but differences in Issue nomenclature reveal their shibbolethic nature (e.g., American Energy and Climate Change [McCain] vs. Energy Independence & Global Warming [Obama]). Differences in Issue rubrics can thus be subjected to a kind of membership analysis that discloses Message and permits one to infer the implied voters being courted (McCains Human Dignity & Life = Pro-Life = The Catholic Vote, among others). Issue captions are Message shibboleths. And because they are shibboleths designed for an implied voter, presupposed or potential, it is no surprise that these rubrics and their rank order should be responsive to the mercurial dynamics of campaign Message. Their order may be shuffled and their names revised as a campaign unfolds, though Issue captions tend to be added or renamed, not dropped. (Dropping Issues would seem to be bad form, perhaps because potential voters are presumed to care about them, or because abrupt shifts in what candidates care about risk being seen as signs that one cares, deep

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The Issues circulate through media-scapes as shibbolethic design elements of campaign websites, as discourse topics in televised debates, as objects of coverage by news media and political talk shows, but what we consider below is the way commentators typify candidate behavior in the face of The Issues, this being an important way of constructing the candidates brands. Akin