I did a wide ranging interview on politics this morning with Stan Milam, on 1230 am WCLO Radio out of Wisconsin, talking about negative ads in this political cycle and the impact they had on voters.
Stan raised the question of polls and the role they played in this election. He asked if they had proven themselves accurate, and wondered why there had been so much hand wringing about them this time around. I think people were worried that the polls wouldn’t be reflected in the election results because of the questionable results in the two previous national contests. Most people I know were skeptical specifically because of how those two elections turned out. The fact is that in both those elections, the polls were pretty darn close for the most part. But it’s the internet where the game has gone. I think that the online aggregators of polls proved themselves to be remarkably effective. Stan wondered how, in light of the fact that many young voters don’t have land lines, and pollsters poll over land lines, how could the polls have come so close to predicting the election outcome. My response is that parents must have been listening to their kids, and voted accordingly. That’s the only way it makes sense to me.
Stan asked me if I thought that Obama is Kennedy-esqe. I do see a few parallels. The fact that the Kennedys have all given Barack their collective thumbs up, makes it hard NOT to draw parallels. Obama’s age and family situation are a match. Young families will look to the first family as a role model, and this family has a lot to offer in that regard. President-elect Obama has got two cute kids who we will, no doubt, be seeing plenty of - their new puppy will be our national puppy, and we’ll get to see them playing in the Rose Garden, having sleep overs, all of that. The kids, Malia (8 years old) and Sasha (5 years old) appear to have great personality, very expressive faces, and I’m sure they will be media darlings for Obama’s entire turn in office. Everything they do, other kids will do. Every thing this family likes, other families will like. To the degree that Obama fulfills his promises and lives up to his potential, this first family will be at the center of our national hopes and dreams.
Secondly, Michelle Obama is really smart, and carries herself with a good deal of dignity and sense. Jackie was that way too. Jackie’s sense of style gave the women of America something to obsess over, and I suspect that will repeat here. Michelle dresses with an unpretentious sense of style, same as Jackie. Michelle seems to like pearls, same as Jackie. Her hairstyle is similar, As a couple, they look right together. Jack and Jackie had that too. And though Michelle is accomplished and capable, she sees her primary role as mother to her kids. Another parallel with the Kennedys. It seems reasonable to me that Michelle is aware of the parallel potential and has pursued it intentionally. A smart move, by any measure.
Third, Obama has rallied the youth in this country, as did JFK. This means that his time in office will be focused on harnessing and utilizing that spirit and energy in service to the common good. JFK carried himself with authority and calm, and his face and smile gave jittery people some reassurance that everything was under control. Obama has that same calm charisma. He moves with apparent ease, clearly comfortable in his body. That invokes confidence in people that watch him. Looking at pictures of him with his family on election night, as John McCain gave his concession speech, it is obvious that Obama knows the times are perilous, the challenges are great, and commitment more important than euphoria. This level headedness will hopefully serve him well.
Lastly, JFK had a gift for giving a powerful speech, as does Obama. Though I’m stumped sometimes at the rhetoric used to describe his speaking ability - Obama hems and haws often - he does know how to build a speech, organize it around a consistent theme and deliver it with the rhetorical flourishes (these are the delivery guides I refer to in the ‘Insider’s Guide’) that make powerful ideas easy for listeners to digest.
Stan asked me at the end of the interview to summarize my opinion about the future of negative advertising. I hated saying it out loud, but I have no doubt that we’ve not seen the last of it. I’m guessing it will be 10 to 20 years before politicians and their handlers finally figure out just how self defeating they are. Stan mentioned that the old approach was to play up the other campaign’s negatives while holding steady at whatever popularity you have.
He asked my why I don’t think it worked for McCain, or worked very well in so many of the other contests that took place. Elizabeth Dole sunk to a new low in trying to make the case that her opponent was ‘God-less,’ and Gordon Smith in my state tried to cast his democratic opponent Jeff Merkeley using creepy and nightmarish videos with whispered scares. I think what has changed is that people were already depressed, worried and scared. They didn’t need someone trying to make them even more depressed, worried and scared. Obama offered hope and talked about the future. That’s what the electorate needed.
Negative ads backfired because they tried to take us across a threshold of negativity where all that remains is despair. That’s no way to win friends and influence voters. I think, I hope, that enough young people (educated, worldly, and rightly concerned about their future) are now so involved in the political process that the more pressing issue from this point on is going to be where do we go from here. Unless the Republicans abandon the Rove playbook (which was a masterful deconstruction of how politicks worked in the 20th century) and come up with an identity that speaks to the younger crowd, they will marginalize themselves completely.
We’ve got some gigantic problems facing us as a nation. The next few years are likely to be more uncomfortable and challenging than anything we’ve experienced in a very long time. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the ‘end of the American empire.’ But the rumors of our fall from grace have been greatly exaggerated. Finally, we have a President who seems willing to bite the bullet (Reagan did this too) and face up to our problems instead of giving them lip service while continuing blithely on. With steady leadership and bright minds working together for our good, I have the sense that we’re going to be ok after all.
I think we’re about to witness an actual rebirth of American idealism that will propel us into this still-new century at what could be an absolutely amazing pace of change and innovation. Yes, the world still has its nutjobs and self-destructive fools wishing to take us all down into their personal hells with them. Obama says they will be defeated. If that’s so, I see more promise, more potential and more opportunity for positive change than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I’m personally eager to find ways to participate, and from what I can tell, that’s a feeling common amongst people wherever I go.