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An Assessment of the Political Dance Contest  

As we are living in an age of entertainment, the campaign for President has become like a big dance competition, especially in the debates. On the Democratic side, the dancer with the smoothest moves was Barack Obama; on the Republican side, it was Mitt Romney.

Of the two dance leaders, Obama had better overall style. He rose to heights of stirring oratory, rivaling Martin Luther King in eloquence. Romney, however, was unflappable. Obama appeared to stumble when he said Ronald Reagan had transformed American politics - true enough but not the kind of talk Democrats will accept. You have to be a bit of a phony to succeed in politics these days. Romney was skilled at making quick recoveries from potential missteps - when he refused to condemn torture, when Guiliani accused him of owning a “sanctuary mansion”. His adroitness in such situations was remarkable considering that his father’s presidential bid in 1968 was destroyed by a single gaffe.

Behind the flash in both cases is a certain substance. Obama lived his idealism as a community organizer in Chicago. His message of racial unity may seem like a platitude, but actually it is not. It signals a departure from the politics of gender and race which the Democrats have embraced for the past forty years. The substance in Romney’s case was his managerial experience - as manager of an investment firm, head of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and Governor of Massachusetts.

Besides the two dance leaders, we had two front-running candidates with a plodding style: Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Both were U.S. Senators much in the public eye. Both were considered establishment candidates. Both have life stories that feature survival in the face of adversity: in a North Vietnam prison, in McCain’s case; as innocent party in a highly publicized personal scandal, in Clinton’s case. One might say, then, that they both have character, defined in terms of ability to persevere in difficult situations. Their personalities, however, occasionally leave something to be desired, especially Hillary’s.

Mitt Romney might have had a lock on social conservatives, had he not been a Mormon. Mike Huckabee took that constituency away. Huckabee developed an effective pitch that would appeal to evangelical voters. On the Democratic side, John Edwards was the man with the perfected pitch, appealing to the economic interests of lower-middle-class voters. But a good pitch was enough.

The man with the most appealing personality, I think, was Fred Thompson. His masculine-flavored southern drawl and quick wit were refreshing. I especially liked how, with a sheepish grin, he conceded that his attack on rivals in the You Tube debate would “give my buddies more air time.” Guiliani made a tactical error in putting all his chips on the Florida primary. I also suspect that voters were not thrilled at the prospect of extending the 9/11 presidency.

John McCain has all but wrapped up the Republican nomination. He beat Romney in the Florida primary with a trumped up charge of Romney’s favoring a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, combined with endorsements from the state’s governor and Republican U.S. Senator. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s endorsement on the eve of the California primary gave McCain an edge in that state. So we can see that part of McCain’s success was due, in part, to outside help rather than proficiency on the dance floor. Consistency of style also counts for something.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama seems to be heading toward the nomination as of this writing. Hillary Clinton made a last-gasp attempt to bring oratorical plagiarism into the mix of elements for judging the dance contest. If the candidate debates were supposed to be original performances, maybe Obama crossed the line in using someone else’s material? Obama countered with this point that he had borrowed lines from his national campaign co-chair at that person’s suggestion.

The climate came in the CNN Texas debate. Reaching for a sound bite, Hillary Clinton insinuated that Obama’s type of “change” was “change that you can Xerox” - a reference to plagiarism. Sitting next to her, Obama just groaned. Audience members began to boo Clinton. “We’re getting into the political ‘silly season’ Obama later observed. This failed attempt at a fancy move based on the “plagiarism” concept all but ended Clinton’s latest line of attack and perhaps her bid for the nomination.

The Texas and Ohio primaries include constituencies - blue-collar workers and Latinos - that have tended to vote for Hillary Clinton. New moves will be conceived to appeal to these particular groups. It’s obvious, then, that political campaigns are not about presenting issues or programs of action to voters but exhibiting proficiency as dance contestants on platforms provided by big media. This is what politics has become in an age of entertainment.

(written in late February 2008)

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