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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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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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Palin Continues to Break Right From McCain

October 20, 2008 · Leave a Comment

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN) David Brody, Palin broke from the position held by McCain and said that she supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

McCain clearly opted to shore up the far-right conservative Republican base with his choice of Palin.  Now that the McCain-Palin ticket is starting to face heavy odds and struggles to regain momentum and shrink the gap between themselves and Obama-Biden, it would appear that Palin may be starting to focus more on life after a possible defeat of her ticket by playing more to the right and breaking from McCain’s positions.  Given her history of – shall we say – slips of the tongue, it’s also possible that the comment was simply a statement of her own beliefs in an unguarded moment.

It’s also troubling to me that Palin, who has given fewer interviews to the legitimate media, chooses to speak with CBN instead of CBS, NBC, ABC, The New York Times or the Washington Post.

McCain got it right when he said about a constitutional gay marriage ban that it was “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.”  But I’m not sure if that was the principled McCain of a decade ago, or the opportunistic McCain of this campaign.

It certainly should surprise no-one that Palin supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.  This red-herring issue has long been a favorite of social conservatives.  So forget about “leave it to the states” – that’s only good for abortion, where that’s the only way the right sees that they can make progress on outlawing abortion.  Forget for the moment that it would be the first time  that we changed the constitution to deny civil rights to a group of people (which in itself ought to give any fair-minded person pause).  What is surprising is that with only a couple of weeks left before the election Palin would take positions different than McCain.  She had been in lockstep with him since her selection (with the exception of ANWR).  I think this very well could be the start of Palin staking out her own position within the party.

As I’ve written before, I don’t think that this approach will achieve what Palin hopes.  Even if she does solidify a position of prominence with hard-core social conservatives, if she does it by being a part of the team that loses the Presidency to the Democrats it will only accelerate a rush to the middle by mainstream Republicans. A civil war between economic and social conservatives has been kept at bay for a long time.  I think we will continue to see that coalition unravel with the loss of the Presidency and a smaller minority position in both houses of Congress after the 2008 election.  I don’t know who will win control of the Republican apparatus, but the ensuing internal fight will drain the party of its ability to compete.

I think that when the analysis has finally been done, it will be clear that McCain’s grand gesture of choosing Palin proved to be a lethal choice for his ticket.  And we can hope that the venom and politics of division practiced by Palin goes back to Alaska for a long hard deep freeze.

Categories: McCain · Palin · Palintology
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