The Post-modern candidate

Campaigns have been becoming more expensive, more vicious, and more ridiculous over the past half century.     They have ceased to be “great debates” about the issues of the day, but marketing campaigns where both sides deal in sound bites and tested scripts.   Veer from the script and say something wrong and you risk being accused of a ‘gaffe.’   Gaffes are dangerous, and politicians try to avoid them.

Of course, if we ever looked at a transcript of our day to day conversations, we’d uncover gaffes all over.   But we’re not candidates.  Human error and carelessness — something we all possess — becomes a sign of something nefarious and weak.   More important than that, political campaigns have become marketing campaigns where the end product increasingly has little or nothing to do with the campaign itself.

Every candidate now has websites where his or her campaign promises and positions are posted.   They have to — that’s part of the marketing campaign, you have to show voters that you have serious proposals and substance.   What that substance is results from a serious effort to determine what will impress the voters.  Candidates know that once they are in office they cannot be held to anything they said before.   The reason is that parties block each other, and President Obama, for instance, can easily say “if the Republicans didn’t obstruct I’d be able to do whatever I wanted and deliver.”

Still, Mitt Romney’s ability to be all things to all people with no clear core makes him the pinnacle of this evolution.  He is the post-modern candidate, a man whose positions and speeches mean nothing except to play their role in the marketing campaign that is a Presidential election.

Back in 2008 I noted this trend (citing the Joe McGinniss book ‘The Selling of the Presidency’ about the Nixon campaign in 1968), and how the Obama campaign had gone further than anyone treating it as an exercise in marketing.   Romney has taken it yet another step further.   We don’t really know where Romney stands, except that he’ll take the stance necessary to try to get elected.

Another aspect of his post-modern flavor is not only don’t we know what he truly believes at core, but he is very secretive about his past, his financial affairs and even it seems when he left Bain Capital.   Apparently he has a Swiss bank account, other off shore accounts (or at least had them) and doesn’t want to release old tax returns or other details about his life.   The latest controversy about when he left Bain is a case in point.

He claims to have left in 1999 when he went to head the Olympics.  Yet documents show he was listed as CEO until 2002, and there are other reports of his involvement.    His campaign’s reaction?   To angrily denounce the accusations as they admit that “technically he was still the owner.”    Technically?

Some believe that “Baingate” could severely damage the Romany candidacy.   If it does come out that he lied, it could be an albatross around his neck through November.   Even if the issue fades, it adds to the way the Obama campaign wants to define Romney, and distracts from the arguments Romney is making.

Not knowing who Romney is makes it easier for stories like his bullying incident or inhumane transport of his dog more important – we’re looking for signs of just who this potential President is!

The upside of being a post-modern candidate is that if people don’t really know you or where you stand, you can create a persona and take whatever positions are most beneficial to your quest.    The down side is that it becomes easier for people to imagine the worst.    In a campaign you don’t control the narrative, it’s a competition.

I suspect I do know Romney’s core.   The hundreds of millions of dollars big donors are giving PACs to run a slash and burn negative campaign against Obama give a hint:  he’s supported by the business and financial elites who see in him someone who will protect their privilege and profits.   He’s probably a decent man of privilege, believes he knows what’s best for the country, and govern pragmatically.   He’s known for having no qualms about being as ruthless as possible to defeat an opponent, and for saying whatever necessary to get elected.

Recently I was on a flight back from Germany with a group of students.  I sat next to a friendly woman, probably in her sixties, who was returning from France.   The three of us in that row had a conversation which was mostly not about politics.   At one point though she said, “I don’t see how any one can think someone making $300,000 is rich.  You take the property taxes and other costs, it’s middle class.”

I didn’t want an argument so I simply said, “well, only about 2.5% of the population earn that or better.”   She switched topics saying only, “yeah, sometimes we forget there is a whole country between the coasts.”   She was a nice woman, but apparently doesn’t really understand the reality outside her socio-economic group.   Romney is like that as well – the conventional wisdom of the elite is his conventional wisdom, and if it takes shifting positions and skewering opponents with attack ads to get the Presidency, then it’s the game he’ll play.

He even looks and acts the part.  Handsome but boring.  Getting lots of money but generating little adoration.  He hopes if he says the right things, takes the right positions and attacks and outspends his opponent he’ll get the job he deep down knows he deserves.    Then he will serve the people.  Noblesse oblige.

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  1. #1 by Alan Scott on July 14, 2012 - 21:31

    Scott ,

    The cartoon of Barak Obama with a basketball is very funny . You do realize that according to David Maraniss, Barak Obama in his autobiography, lied about why he didn’t start on his high school basketball team . Obama said it was because he played Black and the coach, coached White . Maraniss said it was because Obama could not dunk the ball while most of the other players could .

    Your comment about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the big donors are giving to PACs in a slash and burn campaign against President Obama is also roll on the floor funny . May I remind you that many of these same rich gave big bucks to Senator Obama , on his way to a cool $ 1 Billion in 2008 . This was after he broke his pledge to use the public financing system if his Republican opponent did . John McCain did not break his pledge . Of course John McCain lost, so who cares .

    • #2 by classicliberal2 on July 15, 2012 - 18:25

      “Your comment about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the big donors are giving to PACs in a slash and burn campaign against President Obama is also roll on the floor funny.”

      You’re so busy acting as if it’s funny that this was directed at Romney that you miss an important point you, yourself, just helped to make. That’s a bit funny. Or sad.

  2. #3 by pino on July 17, 2012 - 02:40

    Every candidate now has websites where his or her campaign promises and positions are posted. They have to — that’s part of the marketing campaign, you have to show voters that you have serious proposals and substance. What that substance is results from a serious effort to determine what will impress the voters.

    I certainly feel like we’re watching American Idol: American President

    The upside of being a post-modern candidate is that if people don’t really know you or where you stand, you can create a persona and take whatever positions are most beneficial to your quest. The down side is that it becomes easier for people to imagine the worst.

    I often wonder if we want candidates to say what they feel even if the country doesn’t like that or if they should say what the country wants to hear in order to get elected.

    Who should win the Class President? The guy who promises longer summer vacations or the guy who vows to increase test scores?

    he’s supported by the business and financial elites who see in him someone who will protect their privilege and profits.

    There’s two ways of looking at that. On the first, it’s possible that those corporations have obtained legal and ethical profit that is being lifted from them by the government and they just want it back. On the second is the fact that these corporations simply wanna craft legislation that favors their specific company; see GE and Berkshire Hathaway.

    At one point though she said, “I don’t see how any one can think someone making $300,000 is rich. You take the property taxes and other costs, it’s middle class.”

    I have friends in the top 10% easy, most likely top 5%. They refuse to believe that they are rich; they ALL claim middle class. How uniquely American that everyone between the 2% and the 98% feels they are middle class.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on July 17, 2012 - 03:05

      Wealth gives corporations immense power, and if they have government on their side “watching their back” then the power grows. It risks becoming oligarchy. One role of government is to hold powerful corporate actors accountable. I think I prefer a real tension between the two (though not outright opposition). To me it would be great to lower corporate tax rates and get rid of the lobbying induced loopholes — have a climate good for business, not just for the businesses that buy access.

      • #5 by pino on July 17, 2012 - 03:24

        To me it would be great to lower corporate tax rates and get rid of the lobbying induced loopholes — have a climate good for business, not just for the businesses that buy access.

        Hazzah!

      • #6 by Titfortat on July 17, 2012 - 15:27

        Wealth gives corporations immense power, and if they have government on their side “watching their back” then the power grows. It risks becoming oligarchy. One role of government is to hold powerful corporate actors accountable(Scott)

        Too late, the genie is out of the bottle! 😦

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