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republicans 2008: the great american soap opera as subtext…

You have to hand it to the Republicans. They really do understand soap opera - the short story arc, the long story arc, the need for characters with compelling back stories. And boy, do they know how to weave all those structural elements together into a cohesive narrative to engage viewers - sorry, make that voters. Were that As the World Turns could do the same.

Where the GOP operatives really shine, however, is in their masterful use of subtext - the complex of feelings, motives and themes underlying the words. But when it comes to mastering subtext though, John McCain's people really outdid themselves when they introduced Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee (and the bar was set pretty high in 2000, 2002, and of course, 2004). Sarah Palin wasn't just an early surprise - the Republicans practically invented the "October surprise" - she's turned out to be a Trojan horse. And, at the risk of mixing a metaphor, the "liberal" media fell for it hook, line and sinker. So did the rest of us.

  • Arianna Huffington: "(I)t's the Democrats who need to forget Sarah Palin."
  • Frank Rich in The New York Times: "As The New York Times reported last Tuesday, Palin was sloppily vetted, at best. McCain operatives and some of their press surrogates responded to this revelation by trying to discredit The Times article."
  • Katrina vanden Huevel in The Nation: "it was good to see Obama and Joe Biden both calling the Republicans out for the lack of attention being paid to the economy at the Republican Convention in St. Paul on Tuesday."
  • Even linguist, George Lakoff, who studies subtext, though he rarely uses that word, missed the point: "Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths should be enough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response to symbolism cannot be ignored. The initial Democratic response to Palin - the response based on realities alone - indicates that many Democrats have not learned the lessons of the Reagan and Bush years."

Arianna Huffington is wrong when she says that Democrats need to forget Sarah Palin. Democrats need to understand everything this nomination represents. It's not about a sloppy vetting. Palin was chosen not in spite of a thin record, but precisely because of it. That way, when the media do their jobs, they are vilified as the liberal enemy of all that is good and holy. Katrina vanden Huevel isn't wrong when she sees Palin as a smokescreen, but the answer is not focusing on the issues. And while I agree with George Lakoff about the power of the right symbol, the only way to dislodge the Republican this year is to pull them up from the root - to expose the subtext.

Sarah Palin bought the Republicans time to spin things their way before having to deal with the media. She also brought a special challenge. Now, in lesser hands, finessing the pregnancy of an unmarried seventeen-year old daughter of an anti-abortion, anti-contraception, abstinence-only sex education mother might have proved, well, daunting. But not for McCain's pros; they got right out there ahead of the story. And did they get lucky, or what? With nothing less than exquisite timing, The Daily Kos  broke the "Who is Trig's mommy?" story on Sunday; a scenario only slightly less preposterous than the undoing of Erica Kane's abortion (it might actually be slightly more preposterous;  hard to be precise when measuring relative absurdity). But, no matter; what choice did the campaign have but to reveal Bristol's pregnancy? "We didn't want to expose her. But what could we do? Don't blame us. Blame those damn liberals at The Daily Kos."

So, let me get this straight. This all happens over Labor Day weekend, just ahead of the opening of the Republican convention. Two days after the announcement. And no other outlet gets even whiff about the story, never mind the pictures? Okay.

Now, I'm not suggesting that there aren't some bat shit crazy posters out there -- left, right and everything in-between -- but... Anyway,  don't even bother looking for evidence: these people have learned a lot about hiding their tracks since Watergate. Of course, they've had plenty of practice in those thirty-six years. On the other hand, I could be wrong. Maybe it was just luck. Or a coincidence? A lucky coincidence, perhaps? I don't know. It's just that the timing was so very perfect. I keep asking myself, "What are the odds?"

Then again, what were the odds that in 2002 a Democratic senator from Georgia, who lost both legs and an arm serving this country in Vietnam, could be branded unpatriotic and defeated for re-election?

Over the years, one thing the Republicans have been able to do brilliantly is to keep all of the ambiguity, contradictions and seeming paradoxes inherent in subtext from falling into cognitive dissonance. But in 2003, they got cocky. And they got sloppy. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature and then Governor Jeb Bush interjected themselves into the Terri Schiavo case. Strip away the melodrama of heart-broken parents and a husband getting on with his life fighting over removing the feeding tube from a young woman in a persistent vegetative state, and what's left is the real life drama most often faced by siblings who can't agree on what to do about Mom, or parents struggling over their brain dead child.

Plenty of drama for those involved, just not the right kind of drama for a senator with a medical degree from Harvard to hazard a diagnosis from a videotape. Or convince a president generally loath to interrupt his cherished vacations to fly back to Washington just in case Congress passed that piece of misguided legislation.

I know in my bones that this overstepping played an important role in the Democrats winning control of both houses of Congress in 2006. How big a role I can't say; there's simply no way to measure the impact of something this ephemeral. But, I am sure that this is the moment when the Republicans began to lose control of the subtext they had managed (distorted? manipulated? exploited?) so well for so long.

John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, has been widely quoted as saying, "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." As I write, fifty-seven days until the election, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the McCain campaign are not just running rampant,  but have become crudely transparent, threatening (promising?) to collaspe under the weight of its collective cognitive dissonance. 

  • Tucker Eskew, described by Associated Content as "part of the political architectural team that effectively destroyed Senator John McCain's chances for the presidency in 2000 as part of George W. Bush's smear campaign in the South Carolina Primary," joined the McCain campaign last week. Back in 2000, Esker, et al, didn't just smear McCain, but his family, as well. What better example of just how far the "composite view" of John McCain 2008 has devolved from the John McCain from eight years ago? Not exactly Abraham Lincoln putting his rivals in his Cabinet.
  • A letter to The New York Times calls the Republican convention an alternate universe in which, "John McCain isn't a four-term senator, the Republicans have not had control of Congress for most of the 21st century, and there hasn't been a Republican in the White House for almost eight years."
  • Here's a link to an item in the Boston Globe that throws the absurdity generated by Bristol Palin's pregnancy into sharp relief.
  • The continued whining about the sexist media coverage of Sarah Palin. This, from the same people whose stated strategy for Hillary Clinton's 2006 Senate re-election was to "bloody her up a little?" Nobody wants to see anyone bloody. But a woman running for vice-president, who introduces herself in front of thirty-seven million Americans as "a pit bull in lipstick," ought to be able to withstand a proper vetting and some tough questions from the media. And, okay, maybe a couple of high inside fast balls during the debate.

It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." I've been around politics long enough to tell you that all political campaigns involve some degree of fooling all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either hopelessly naïve or lying. But when a campaign or political party is so single-minded in their pursuit of victory that they see nothing wrong with fooling all of the people all of the time, they reveal not just hubris and arrogance, but their profound contempt for the American people. Between now and November 4th, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that we are a better country than that.

© 2008 Lynn Liccardo 

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only. Lynn Liccardo

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Brilliant post, Lynn.

You hit the nail on the head here. Palin is definitely meant to be a distraction. And it's genius on the GOP's part.

It's difficult if not impossible to level any sort of constructive criticism at Palin without being branded a sexist or a "lib".

How ironic that Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews were just relieved of anchoring duties of live political coverage at MSNBC for mixing news with politics and idelogical views. Which is precisely what Fox has been doing for decades.