Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Mind the gap: a modest (but serious) proposal

There's lot of talk going around the blogs and the media about what went wrong, why Kerry lost, and what the Democratic party needs to do about it, and amid all of it is this analysis in The New Republic by Alexander Barnes Dryer. He looks at eight different theories put forward to explain the outcome of the election, and weighs each of them. Two (blaming it on Theresa Heinz Kerry and the Clintons) he rejects outright (correctly, I think) but the other six he assigns these values:

5%: Values (the perception that Dems don't have them, but Republicans do)
5%: Gay marriage (backlash to events in Mass. and S.F.)
10%: Bob Shrum (Kerry's primary strategist, a serial loser)
20%: Geography (population shift and the need to expand the Dem. base)
30%: John Kerry (his looks, his demeanor, his elitist inability to connect)
30%: Iraq (the inability to triangulate a viable position to counter Bush)

I'm not in any position to argue with the specific percentages he assigns, but I do think he captures the essential flavor of a loss which cannot be put down to a single overriding factor. (I'd also add at least one other, which perhaps many liberals and Democrats are too polite -- or circumspect -- to mention: stupidity and ignorance on the part of the electorate.) If that's true, that multiple causes were involved, then it also means that no one single step (moving to the center, moving to the left, creating a simple and easily comprehensible Democratic narrative to counter that of the GOP, etc.) is going to solve the problem for the next time.

I also think that he's overlooked another aspect, which perhaps could be considered a subset of the "John Kerry" problem (i.e. the personality of the candidate), which is that I think a significant percentage of Bush's vote went to him because of the persona he projects, and which, to those people who aren't apt to think in critical or skeptical terms, is strongly received and significantly influenced their vote. To these people, Bush appears to be a strong leader who knows what he wants to do and lets nothing get in the way of doing it. At the same time, he seems to them to be close enough to a "regular guy" that they believe they'd be comfortable sitting down next to him and having a beer, or having him over to the house for dinner.

Needless to say, these aspects of Bush's perceived persona are carefully crafted and almost certainly false. I've got no special personal knowledge of Bush's true character, but it's possible that my years of working in the theatre, watching and helping actors adopt, build, alter and finesse the characters they present to their audience may have trained me to be able to look behind the superficial presentation to see some of the true personality behind it. Or, perhaps I'm simply kidding myself -- but it is nonetheless true that I see behind Bush's projected personality a very different person, a hard, cruel and selfish man. I see it in his posture and body language, in the way he walks and his facial expressions. (I find that watching him with the sound off is one of the best ways to get in touch with the reality underneath the surface.)

So, if Bush's perceived personality was a significant factor in his victory, and I think it was, it leads to an obvious factor which is not, at least that I can currently see, being seriously considered as something we need to do to win the next Presidential election, and it has to do with the type of person we select as our candidate.

I think that the Democrats had better start looking outside the normal ranks of the party for their next Presidential candidate.

Face it, this year's field doesn't really have a lot of strong survivors. I like Edwards, but he didn't seem to give the boost to the Kerry ticket I thought he would, and, as the #2 on a losing ticket, he's going to be a little sullied next time around. Dean is popular among liberals, but probably unelectable. Vilsack is a nobody, and will remain that way. Lieberman is a 3-day old stinking fish who's perhaps poised to cross the line and go over to the opposition (he's being bandied about as a possible replacement for Rumsfeld, and if he takes it I think we should kneecap the guy -- metaphorically speaking, of course), Gephardt will be unknown next time around (who?), Obama will not have enough experience yet. Clark, whose main problem was that he didn't have enough experience, may be in better shape for '08, but it depends a lot on what he does in the meantime. Hillary's unelectable (and please, oh please, she shouldn't even try -- just get over it, Friends of Hillary, she's never going to be President).

There're surely others who are below the radar now who will pop up in 2008, but if they're Congressman they won't have a wide enough national reputation (think Kucinich) and if they're Senators they'll have their Senate voting record hanging over them to be abused and lied about by the GOP. Governors will have the best chance of winning (as I said before the election), but not liberal governors, and certainly not liberalish Governors from the northeast. Besides, governors can be smeared as easily as anyone (can you say "Willie Horton"?).

No, I look at Bush's persona advantage over Kerry, and I look at the reception that Schwazenegger got in Japan when he was on a trade mission there, and I look at Reagan and (to a certain extent) Ventura, and my conclusion is that the best hope we have of breaking the right-wing stranglehold on national politics is to run an actor for President.

What we need to do, I think, is to consider casting the role of President.

Yep, I'm advocating that we give in utterly and completely to the triumph of style over substance and groom a figurehead that people will like and vote for.

A man, of course. White, of course, but vaguely ethnic would be good. (We're trying to get ourselves back into the game, and need every advantage we can get.) Someone not too liberal, of course, and without any history of radical politics behind them. Someone who mostly plays parts that are lovable or likable, or at least radiates "I'm a good guy" even when playing a bad one.

Not Rob Reiner -- someone with hair and in good physical shape. Doesn't have to be an "A" list star, could be someone on the "B" list, as long as their Q rating is pretty high, and they've got solid name recognition across all demographics (see Reagan for what may perhaps be the ideal level of stardom). No one too old (under 65), but not too young either (over 45, which a President has to be anyway).

The name that jumps to mind is, of course, Martin Sheen, but I think his playing a President on TV would be a distinct liability (in a way that making movies with monkeys was for Reagan), too easily the butt of late-night comic jokes. Warren Beatty and Robert Redford are probably too identified with liberal causes, but they're in the right ballpark as well.

In 2008, we can't allow another persona gap with the Republicans.

Postscript: I neglected to mention that the electoral victories of at least two of the post-war Democrats (Kennedy and Clinton) was probably due in part to their projection of movie-star-like personas. (Carter and Johnson are another thing entirely).

If there were Democratic politicians waiting in the wings (preferable moderates from the border South or the mid-West brought up on that old-time religion but who see the world in basically liberal humanistic terms, even as they speak in Biblical ones) who had that kind of (you should excuse the expression) charisma that I'm looking for, then they should go to the top of the list as well, but the plain fact is that actors, whose craft involves honing personas, both their own and that of their characters, have a real head-start in this area. (Politicians, for all their attention to their public image, have to, at some level, deal with the nitty-gritty of politics, which puts them at a disadvantage.)

Update: I posted an earler version of this to a private e-mail discussion group I'm a member of, and this was brought to our attention just minutes ago:

Tom Hanks for president?: Looks like "Fahrenheit 9/11" director and proud lefty Michael Moore is hatching a scheme to draft Tom Hanks for the White House in 2008.

"We need to find our Arnold," Moore told Lowdown at Sunday's "Hotel Rwanda" premiere, adding that the box-office star is the Democratic Schwarzenegger.

"You know, Americans want to vote for someone that they trust, that they like, that has a friendly face. They don't expect their President to be the one who's actually setting the policy and writing the laws. They know Bush doesn't do that. They want the person in charge, though, to be someone who will make them feel safe and someone who they like and who they trust.

"Americans love celebrities, they love movie stars, and when they get the chance to vote for them, they do."

Yesterday Hanks, in London promoting "The Polar Express," expressed amusement at Moore's musings but insisted he has no political aspirations.

"That will never, ever, ever happen," Hanks declared through his PR rep.

[New York Daily News via Salon, thanks to Peggy]

Moore was probably being sardonic but Hanks is almost precisely the kind of guy we'd be looking for, perhaps deficient only in a certain amount of gravitas. Of course, I don't have a clue about his politics -- which is exactly the point -- but you surely do get a warm and fuzzy feeling when you're watching him.

To my mind, it's much, much better to give in to the general contemporary trend to value style over substance than it is to jettison liberal values which are extremely important to me (like gun control and a woman's right to choose), as is currently being discussed over on MyDD. After all, if that's the kind of person who's going to get elected anyway, shouldn't it be our guy?

And there's really no necessity for the projected persona of our guy to be false or misleading -- for all I know Tom Hanks really is a nice guy -- or for the person we choose to be an empty shell of a figurehead -- in my experience, most actors, despite the cliches, are far from ignorant or uninformed. They are, in fact, mostly extraordinarily well informed and vitally concerned about what's going on in the world -- which is why so many of them are liberals.

Update: Of course, as luck would have it, when I finished updating this, I surfed around on my TV to see what was on, and Fox Movie Channel is showing 1984's Bachelor Party, starring Tom Hanks, which is not exactly the kind of material you want the opposition to have in hand when it starts its negative advertising.

Update: In comments, loyal unfutz reader Gloria Otto suggests a reality TV show: The Casting of the President. Unfortunately, Showtime already did it with American Candidate:

Ten candidates from across the country have been chosen to compete in Showtime Networks' unscripted and unprecedented reality series, AMERICAN CANDIDATE. The series focuses on six men and four women of various ages, backgrounds and political views, including Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Libertarians. AMERICAN CANDIDATE is hosted by Emmy® Award-winning talk show host Montel Williams.


Week-by-week, candidates will face-off against each other in a series of challenges designed to identify one individual who has the qualities to be President of the United States. Episodes of AMERICAN CANDIDATE will feature well-known political experts who advise the candidates on the challenges they will face. These consultants help the candidates shape their messages and campaigns, as well as give advice on everything from political ad creation and media coaching to image consulting and polling.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/16/2004 10:47:00 PM | | | del.icio.us | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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