Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Campaign Themes -- Branding the Candidates

We might like to think of the electoral process as a high-minded exercise in political discourse, where like-minded people gather around the best candidates with the most to offer the country in expertise, leadership, experience, and ideas. This is, of course, a fantasy. Political campaigns are high-level advertising campaigns, with the same branding of candidates as exists for cars and soft drinks. Yes, the speeches and debates give us more depth than a 30-second ad, but most people will vote based on second-hand information and something – a look, an ad, a moment – that catches their interest and gives the candidate an edge. Those who run campaigns well know this – whether Reagan’s Morning in America, Clinton’s Third Way, or Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism, the ability to come up with a theme which resonates with the public can overcome all sorts of negatives about a candidate. Similarly, the lack of the theme can allow you to be defines by your opponents, or simply not give the public a positive image of your candidacy to gather around.
After the last Democratic debate, I discussed the themes as I saw them at the time. To recap the top ones: Hillary’s theme is Ready From Day One. Notice how often she harkens back to the concept, when talking about foreign policy or rejecting hypotheticals, she recalls the nature of decision-making in the White House, which she was there for. When asked about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she made sure to talk about the process of coming up with that policy at the time. When asked about health care, she reminds everyone she has had to deal with that policy and, more importantly, the battle to get it through Congress (‘I’ve done that and have the scars to show for it”); she doesn’t have a health care policy to speak of, but she just falls back on her experience. Obama is New Leadership From a New Generation – everything about him screams how he is unlike anyone else. To borrow from an old New York mayoralty campaign, he is fresh while everyone else is tired...and you are tired of these other people too, of the Clintons, of Edwards, of Biden. Look for him to refine this as he goes on, using the words “new” and “fresh” and “different” as often as possible in speeches and answers to question.
John Edwards, on the other hand, has not found a theme which might resonate. He has spent a lot of time talking about the war, attempting to be the major anti-war candidate. But the debates, with Kucinich and Gravel attacking all of them equally, destroyed the distinctions between him and the other two top tier candidates. He has talked about poverty. He has had programmatic answers, including a fine health care plan. Yet if you ask someone why they support him, there is no unifying theme which could be put on a banner to lead the parade. In his first commercial, he has three memorable points. 1) America’s strength is in its people 2) we must be one America 3) we need to give Americans something to be patriotic about besides war. Pardon me while I yawn. The first sounds more Republican than Democratic – if the strength is its people, why do we need government? It’s not a bad first line if he’s going to follow with “it’s weakness is its government and I will fix that”, but he doesn’t. It’s just feel-good nonsense. The One American theme, as opposed to his Two Americas speeches from 2004, a concept which he apparently is reviving, is meaningless to most voters. It can be fleshed out into something else, a common good philosophy perhaps, but doesn’t grab people. The third one is a lovely turn of phrase, but it ignores how most Americans, especially those likely to vote for a Democrat, think. It is the war that makes them less patriotic, that’s the only thing that they aren’t proud of.
I have thought about a possible theme for Edwards’ campaign, and here is what I have come up with:

John Edwards: Reviving the American Dream

Isn’t that what he is about? For most of the 20th century, the American dream was a simple one – get a good job with good benefits, buy a home, raise your kids, give them the education and help needed to have a better life than you have. Your job provides health insurance and retirement benefits and along with Social Security, your future is secure. Most Americans don’t dream of being rich, they aren’t entrepreneurial, they just have basic desires. That dream is dying. They fear losing their job and with it their health care benefits. Even if they don’t lose the job, the pay increases are not keeping up with the costs of gas, housing, food, and health insurance. The job may provide insurance, but the cost to the workers keeps increasing as wages stagnate. American optimism is fading. We know this because more and more polls have shown that Americans no longer believe that their children will be better off than they are. We know this because the first sign of fear is the resentment of the “other”. In this case, it’s the threat seen from the developing world stealing our jobs. Even more so, it is the perceived threat of immigrants. The anger over immigration is fueled by fear, not just of losing jobs or lower wages, but of the culture changing around them. There are many historical examples of this happening, and many of those were particularly nasty. Everything Edwards talks about can be linked back to this. Health care, ending the war, trade, job security – all of it. He has talked about “two Americas”, but there are three (at least), not just rich and poor (and he has talked about the poor far more than is good for his candidacy, sad to say), but those in the middle. The middle used to aspire to more, now they fear going in the other direction. Back in the 90’s, Bill Clinton said that most Americans would no longer have just one career, but two or three careers. Of course, that’s elitist crap, since most Americans don’t have “careers” they have jobs. And while it’s one thing to go from being a lawyer to a politician, to a college professor, as Clinton did, losing your job, and the wages and benefits that go with it is a harrowing experience. Looking for a new job involves starting over, usually at a significantly lower pay rate. If you lose your job after age 50, you can kiss your lifestyle goodbye. Edwards needs to tell people that he understands their problems, understands their fears, and will do everything he can to deal with them.
Will he find this theme? I don’t know, but America needs to hear it, so I hope he does.

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Blogger sam.gurka5 said...

You make a great point about the lack of an Edwards campaign theme. In the process, you also highlight a huge shortcoming of the democratic process. The process tends to polarize and avoids addressing complex, long term issues. Instead, campaigns mine for votes through demagoguery and identifying enemies who are responsible for our problems i.e. immigrants, muslims, gays, the French, the Chinese, etc.

The fact is that we need to deal with long term issues, the existance of which are not the fault of anyone but, instead, a natural evolution. The environment is deteriorating and we, as the world's largest user of energy, must come to terms with our responsibilty. Health care is becoming more expensive and fewer people have, or are able to afford, quality coverage. The social net, such as social security, medicare, etc needs to be strengthened in such a way as to provide the benefits intended at their inception. And, recognizing the loss of jobs to countries with lower wages, we need to establish the proper incentives for job creation in those industries where Americans can be most competitive.

You broke my concentration, for a while, with your mention of developing countries "stealing" U.S. jobs. It's not clear whether this is your opinion or whether you think this is what a large segment of voters feel. In either case, it is emblematic of the need to place blame on someone or something for our problems, the solution for which is, therefore, to punish that entity.

Getting back to you essential point, it is sad, but true, that successful campaigns in democratic countries are those which play on catchy themes, fear, likeability, advertising and mud-slinging. Edwards needs one and your's is fine.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Barry Rubinowitz said...

The use of the pejorative "stealing" was intended to represent the general perception, not mine. I would use the less inflammatory "taking", which is the result of our giving them, so it isn't as negative. After all, the people in India and China need jobs too, so there is no reason they shouldn't take them if they can.
You are far more of a free trade advocate than I am. I don't believe we can reverse the last decade or two, the horse has left the barn. I do believe we need to see what we can do to keep too many other animals from following. At some point I'll write more about the subject and then we can really jump into the debate.

10:17 AM  

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