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The Vulgarization of Politics

November 8, 2008 · 1 Comment

On Friday, November 7th, just four days after the historic Presidential election, I had the opportunity to hear one of the key advertising architects for the McCain campaign.  Fred Davis spoke to an exclusive and intimate gathering of sixty marketing executives in San Francisco as part of The CMO Club.  Davis owns and runs Strategic Perspectives and was responsible for the advertising strategies of John McCain as well as the Senate campaigns of Elizabeth Dole, John Sununu, and a long list of other Republican losers.  In the long list of campaigns that he worked on, all were Republican and most lost.  I had to look across the table at the end of the list during his introduction and my table mate and I concurrently stage whispered: “those didn’t work out so well, did they?”

Fred Davis of Strategic Perspectives

Fred Davis of Strategic Perspectives

I was in equal parts mesmerized and horrified.  I found myself admiring his cunning and his thought processes, but then would take a step back and realize that the net effect of his work is truly corrosive to society and to the reasoned discourse necessary for a well functioning democracy.

You have to admit that Davis’ efforts have often been effective.  But they’ve been effective by appealing to the worst among and within us.  The Harold Ford Jr. Playboy Bunny ad?  That was his.  The Elizabeth Dole “Godless” ad?  His too.  So was the “Celebrity” ad against Obama this season.  When you review his work, as I did in the recent session, you see a not so subtle appeal to racism, class warfare, homophobia and misogyny.  Convicts dancing in tutus and a white playboy bunny talking about a black candidate.  Many of the most memorable extremes in negative ads have come from Davis’ work.  It is this kind of slimy campaigning that caused McCain’s longtime friend Chuck Hagel to not endorse McCain in the Presidential election.

Davis claimed to be mostly not interested in politics, and that might be true. But he only works for Republicans, and seems to have drunk more than his share of the conservative kool-aid.

Fred Davis is at once smart and charming but also reprehensible and largely responsible for so much of the partisan rancor and the disgust with which most citizens now view the political process. The win-at-all-costs approach makes advertising hitmen like Davis the practitioners of a dark art that has become indispensable to campaigns on all sides of the political spectrum. It was an interesting experience to say the least. Fred played a number of his TV ads from recent campaigns as well as earlier campaigns on figures like James Inhofe (his uncle) and Sunny Perdue (the “King Roy Rat” ads. He was responsible this election for the Dole “Godless” ads, as well as the “celebrity” ad attacking Obama that featured Paris Hilton. Davis believes that these ads were responsible for improved polling numbers for his candidates. He claims that Dole won 60% of the votes on election day after his “Godless” attack ads, but the enormous early voting that the Obama campaign turned out led to Hagan’s victory.

I will show some of the ads here, but with mainstream news commentary around some of them, because I really don’t want to just amplify something that is so vile at its root.

If you know what I mean when I say that you feel like you were nearly seduced by evil, you know what I was feeling.  Davis has so much charm that you feel yourself being attracted to what he’s saying, only to stop and realize that what the man is doing is manipulative and at is core evil and wrong.

Probably the best example is when Davis played the three minute Michael Monsoor video that was used during the Republican National Convention this year.  If you’re not familiar with the story, Michael was a young Navy Seal who fell under enemy attack while on patrol in Iraq.  After being struck by a live hand grenade, this courageous young man fell on the grenade, ensuring his own death but saving the lives of the other young men with him.  It’s a moving story of heroism and self-sacrifice to be sure, and even as Davis replayed it he choked up.  So why would I say that the use of this video was evil?  Simply because it follows in a long line of examples of Republicans taking remarkable stories and trying to use them for their own political benefit.  Monsoor was a hero.  Using his tragic story to try to get votes, in my opinion, is a tragic, cynical and evil use of his sacrifice.  Sacrifice and service are not partisan. Neither the Republicans or Democrats hold a monopoly on patriotism and honor. Even McCain, who personally sacrificed so much, does not hold a monopoly on service and honor. But then again the Republicans were willing to use Kerry’s remarkable service against him in the “Swiftboat” ads. That marked a disgraceful new low. While not his work, that ad is part and parcel of the work that Davis does. Yes, Monsoor was a hero, and we ought to honor his sacrifice. But we should never attempt to use his remarkable service as a way to get more votes for one candidate over another. That, my friends, is disgraceful. But you almost forget that when you get caught up in the remarkable and emotional story.  And such is the way of Davis’ most successful efforts.

Some of the most interesting comments were about the struggle between maintaining an overall strategy (which Obama did with “Change”) and the daily tactical approach that the McCain campaign used, and which resulted in the changing messages which left only the impression of a candidate who had lost his essential self, and ended up hawking an inauthentic brand.

Davis is also a Sarah Palin fan, and claims she is a smart lady, and a future leader of the Republican Governors Conference.  When Davis talked about his high regard for Palin, it was all I could do not to shout out: “If Palin is so smart, she’s done an amazing job of hiding it in her overcoat of ignorance.”

Davis was appalled that people within the McCain camp had turned on Palin and spread stories about her ignorance – not knowing that Africa was a continent instead of a country; not being able to name the three parties to NAFTA (The United States, Mexico and Canada).  He said that top leaders of the campaign including Schmidt would be on talk shows this Sunday to rebut those claims, and that Schmidt had put Nicole Wallace (widely suspected from within the campaign as being the source of those comments, as she did not get along with Palin but was charged with her handling) in charge of shutting down that story line.

I left the session feeling like I had met the devil.  I have it in my mind that the devil is clever and charming, but that behind the easy smile and the effusive charm lies an evil that slips into the room silently and poisons all who allow themselves to be lulled to sleep.

One thing is for certain, to borrow a phrase from traditional conservative Peggy Noonan, we are witnessing the vulgarization of politics in America.  And the responsibility falls squarely on Fred Davis and his ilk, on the candidates who are willing to utilize these hit men, and on all of us who let them get away with it. (more…)

Categories: Bush · McCain · Palin · Palintology · Politics
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William F. Buckley's Son Kicked Out Over Obama

October 25, 2008 · 7 Comments

In one of the most striking signs of the rift in the Republican Party, Christopher Buckley has been effectively kicked out of the National Review – a publication started by his father William F. Buckley – for supporting Obama.  Christopher Buckley is just one of a growing number of conservatives who have supported Obama, most because they simply can not support the McCain ticket or the ascendancy to power of the extreme right wing which resulted in the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.  The abandonment of the ticket by the thinking wing of the party is one of the signs that the ticket will go down to defeat.  Despite the anti-east coast-Washington-chattering class-intellectual public spin that the McCain-Palin campaign spit out at public events, these defections are giving the ticket, and much of the party, pause.

The Republican Party has done an amazing job holding together an uneasy coalition since the time of Reagan.  While the nuances are more complicated, it is not wrong to say that there have been two large clusters who often do not share a great deal within the coalition:  Traditional conservatives and the Religious Right.  Democrats are an even more fractured coalition of labor unions, African-American, Liberals, and teachers, and it is this diversity of interests that have made uniting those groups an even greater challenge than the Republicans have had.

Traditional conservatives include the more intellectual, moderate, fiscally conservative, “country-club” Republicans that formed the core of the Republican party until the late 1970’s.  Think top hats and martini sipping.

Shortly after the Democrats changed course, and went from a party that acted in obstruction of the civil rights movement and instead embraced civil rights, the Republicans started to flirt with the emerging evangelically-led religious right groups in order to obtain the possibility of a majority.  The Religious Right shifted from the traditional fundamentalist separation view which did not wish to be sullied by the worldly concerns represented by politics into the modern evangelical view of engagement that sought control of the political apparatus, using the Republican Party as its vessel.

Thousands of groups formed around specific objectives and interests, but the most visible, and arguably effective in the political sphere, was the now largely defunct Moral Majority.  Leaders in this movement included Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Bill Bright, James Dobson, and Don Wildmon – many of whom remain active to this day.  Most of these groups saw themselves as participating in the tradition of Christian “Great Awakenings” – movements of spiritual revival brought on as waves of new believers repented of their sins, found Jesus, and filled the churches, igniting a spreading wildfire of spiritual passion and renewal.  Concurrent with this socio-spiritual change was the growing movement of Christian Reconstructionism, first popularized by John Rushdoony in a publication in 1973.  The basic idea is that governments are subordinate to God, and that rather than pursuing secular government as had been the dominant paradigm, that it was the duty of Christians to control government, and legislate morality and to become a “Christian Nation.” I know a little of what I speak, having been involved in the movement from the early 1980’s through the mid1990’s first as a part of “Campus Crusade for Christ,” and later as a member of several activist evangelical churches across the country.

In case you’d like a scorecard, William F. Buckley, John McCain, George Will, Christopher Buckley, Colin Powell, William Weld, Peggy Noonan and, yes, even Ronald Reagan are or were traditional conservative Republicans.  Sarah Palin, James Dobson, James Watt and John Ashcroft are part of the Religious RightMitt Romney represents an interesting figure – he could be considered a traditional Republican, except for his Mormon faith.  Mormonism lies far outside the bounds of traditional Evangelical Christianity, which considers it to be a cult, despite the best attempt by the Mormon church to define itself as within the mainstream Christian tradition.  It is an interesting challenge to keep together many groups who define salvation as specific and exclusive.

It is for this very reason that McCain had to work so hard to go against his instincts and his identity as a traditional conservative Republican and embrace the Religious Right in this campaign.  Having called (correctly in my view) the Religious Right “agents of intolerance” after their work to defeat him in earlier primaries, he realized that he needed their support to win the Republican nomination, so he spent years reversing course and cozying up to them.  Unfortunately I don’t believe that we are yet at the place where adherence to the Religious Right’s ideals make one unelectable at the national level, but McCain’s reversal of position left unease on all sides, and made people feel like they didn’t know the “real” John McCain.  If they vote for him, will they get the John McCain of eight years ago (the “maverick” who fought parts of his own party), or the John McCain of the last 8 years (who wrapped himself in the folds of George Bush voting with him over 90% of the time, and embracing the religious movement that he once criticized)?  Many close to McCain have said that it is this fundamental inconsistency that has exacerbated his already cantankerous personality, and made his temperament a critical and possibly fatal consideration for the women and independents he needs to win.

In previous administrations the religious right was mollified by superficial professions of a belief system that was close enough to being “right” combined with policy planks that addressed their specific agenda: against abortion, against gay rights, relaxation of the hard line between church and state.  As a former evangelical, I understand the uneasiness most members of the Religious Right felt when they heard Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain speak of their faith (which, by the way, is something they restricted to closed door meetings – not open to the media – held by religious interest groups rather than open forums).  After getting elected, the ruling administrations have largely abandoned those parts of the plank that were of most concern to the Religious Right, resulting in that movement feeling, appropriately, used by the party.  This year McCain had enough trouble with the traditional party establishment that the right felt empowered to demand its own Vice President candidate, and McCain was forced to find one that also offset his own weaknesses:  age, lack of charisma and exploit Obama’s perceived weakness with women following a long grueling primary fight with Hillary Clinton.  Thus did we arrive at a place where a relatively unknown and inexperienced Sarah Palin was placed on the ticket.  But rather than heal the rift, as Palin’s fortunes have sagged after an initial burst, Palin is now serving to expose and deepen the divide.

Traditional Republicans are abandoning the ticket in droves.  Uninspired by McCain and horrified by Palin, they are quietly or publicly supporting the Obama-Biden ticket.

This rift has now reached a critical moment and moved center stage.  To get back to the title of this article, Christopher Buckley is the most recent to suffer from the attempt for solidarity and purity.  No longer able to support a ticket that so thoroughly disdains the intellectual underpinnings of conservatism that his father had been so instrumental in creating, he came out in support of Barack Obama.  He wrote that his father William F. Buckley would have been “appalled” by Palin’s vapid folksy talking points and philosophical incoherence.

The resulting outcry came quickly and vehemently.  So much so that Christopher Buckley decided to offer up his resignation as a symbolic act of protest.  To Buckley’s surprise the editors accepted his resignation, believing that they needed to hew to party unity.  This insistence on falling in with the party line to foster unity and the attempt to paper over real differences will only weaken the Republican Party.

I will confess that I have always adored William F. Buckley’s writing, and it has influenced me greatly.  He had an ability to write thoughtfully about nuanced topics with great clarity, and with a love for and mastery of the English language that was rare.  While I have grown out of much of his system of beliefs, he was always someone whom I would have loved to have met, and to have engaged in lively discussion and debate.  But our political culture seems to have lost the idea that a robust debate about ideas is healthy and can be civil.

This week I have again been challenged about the appropriateness of this site’s URL:  hatepalin.  I have been told that I am feeding the trend toward vulgarity and incivility with the use of the word “hate.”  The idea when I started this site was to:

  1. Help vet Sarah Palin – to find and expose the truth, since so little was known about her
  2. Expose the hate engendered in the exclusionary and divisive agenda of Sarah Palin and the Religious Right
  3. Write about my disdain for the policies of Sarah Palin that I hate

I will repeat here and perhaps figure out a way to move to the front of the site the statements on the “About” Page:  I don’t hate Sarah Palin.  I do hate her policies and much of what she stands for.  If you want to know what this site is about and the word “hate” so disturbs you, ignore the URL, and focus on the title page.  Here’s what it looks like and says:

hatepalin site title and mission

And I stand firmly by both of those premises.

Christopher Buckley, thank you for standing up for what you believe.  Thank you for staying true to what your father worked so hard to build.  You will not be the one left in the wilderness when the Republican rift has worked its course.  You will help rebuild a truly Grand Old Party into its historic best and not its present worst.

But read it for yourself from Christopher Buckley:

Buckley Bows Out of National Review

and

Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama

Categories: Bush · McCain · Palin · Politics
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Reagan Speech Writer Agrees Palin A Disaster

October 24, 2008 · 4 Comments

Peggy Noonan was the much valued speechwriter for darling of the Republican Party Ronald Reagan, as well as the creator of such memorable lines as “a thousand points of light” and “read my lips: no new taxes” for George Bush the First.

No friend of Obama or the Democrats, she has been scathing in her assessment of the candidacy of Sarah Palin.  Here are a few excerpts from her opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on October 17, 2008:  “Palin’s Failin.”

But we have seen Mrs. Palin on the national stage for seven weeks now, and there is little sign that she has the tools, the equipment, the knowledge or the philosophical grounding one hopes for, and expects, in a holder of high office. She is a person of great ambition, but the question remains: What is the purpose of the ambition? She wants to rise, but what for?

No news conferences? Interviews now only with friendly journalists? You can’t be president or vice president and govern in that style, as a sequestered figure. This has been Mr. Bush’s style the past few years, and see where it got us. You must address America in its entirety, not as a sliver or a series of slivers but as a full and whole entity, a great nation trying to hold together. When you don’t, when you play only to your little piece, you contribute to its fracturing.

In the end the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics. It’s no good, not for conservatism and not for the country. And yes, it is a mark against John McCain, against his judgment and idealism.

While I don’t agree with a great deal of what Peggy Noonan says and believes, I think that she is spot-on in her assessment of Palin.  And it is precisely this conclusion, that Palin is by no means qualified to be Vice President – or God forbid – President, and that her selection reflects so badly on John McCain that it could well cost him the White House.

Categories: Bush · McCain · Palin · Palintology
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