As presidential campaigns become longer, the media’s appetite grows for comments by anyone who has a connection — no matter how close or remote — to candidates who are in the running for the highest office in the land. Extreme views are important for 24 hour cable news, the Internet, or political talk shows who need this stuff to stay in business. When people say or do things that have a “jaw-dropping” effect, it’s like a gift from the gods for media outlets trying to keep their advertisers happy by capturing a good share of the audience. It also means they have programming fodder for a minimum of 24 hours. If it’s a good sex scandal (see Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer) all the better! It means people will be tuning in with mixture of outrage, curiosity, and titillation. For lack of a better term, let’s call the Pavlovian behavior to these stories “The Tune In Factor,” or TIF. When you have a story with a high TIF, it may be a boon for TV/radio ratings, hits to a website, or newspaper sales, but it can quickly frame a political campaign in ways that the candidates don’t expect. If the story is to the candidate’s favor, they try and get the most mileage out of the story. But if it’s not, then they quickly rush to nullify the story’s negative effect. Sometimes, however, one can just sit back and collect political chits from a story that has no direct connection to a campaign.
This week’s TIF examples center on two hot button issues: 1. Race politics. 2. Sexuality — or more specifically, homosexuality. In the U.S., we love our right to free speech — until someone says something that we disagree with. That’s when our friends in the media jump in an exploit the level of disagreement in culture. Case in point: Barack Obama. Hillary’s camp has been rightfully slamming the media for their love affair with Obama. SNL did a skit on said love affair and suddenly stories on an indicted businessman giving Obama money surfaced (yet again). More importantly, there’s Obama’s pastor saying things in church about Hillary, about race, about 9/11, about the incarceration of blacks, about a lot of things that, because he’s Obama’s pastor, Obama must address.
Video Exhibit #1:
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This can play out a number of ways — and here’s one: because the good Rev. is unapologetic and clearly striking a chord with the congregation with his rhetoric, it can easily play to white fears of black anger. Maybe, just maybe — if this video is spun with the right about racial manipulation — all the talk of change and hope Obama has been using as the centerpiece of his campaign, is really about “getting whitey.” I could be stretching here, but in the world of race politics, code words and images go a long way in conveying certain messages. An infamous example is the Willie Horton ad that George H.W. Bush aired in 1988 criticizing Michael Dukakis as “soft on crime” by using the example of a black man who was furloughed and raped a white woman and beat the crap out of her fiance in their home. It was an extremely effective at conveying and conflating a number of negative messages — three of which were crime, race, and liberals. Bill Clinton, a guy who was no stranger to understanding the political culture of the late ’80s/early ’90s, knew that to reach centrist voters he had to shave off the extremes in the Democratic Party. Looking for an opportunity to show that his political point of view mirrored those of the coveted “Reagan Democrats” (i.e., those who were turned off by the political and economic gains made by women, minorities, and gays), Clinton had to beat up on someone who represented the culmination of the identity politics of the ’70s, and he found her in Sister Souljah.
With the comments made by Reverend Wright, some say that this is Hillary’s “Sister Souljah moment” in the campaign; a moment where she can assure centrists (many of whom have no political party affiliation) that she’s not as liberal as people say she is, and that Obama is ideologically in bed with the likes of Wright.
Video Exhibit #2:
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The fall of the American Republic because of homosexuality is the latest in a long line of “Big Bads” that the right likes to use to fire up their base. It’s an old trick that seems to work like a charm whenever the base needs to be fired up. The setup is easy: find a minority group that can be pilloried with minimal political repercussions, trot out inflammatory rhetoric and hope it gets amplified in the echo chamber of the media. It’s not about who’s outraged by the rhetoric so much as it is about speaking to the prejudices and fears of those who vote for Republicans. A high TIF regarding homosexuals can translate into motivated voters because the more face time given to a point of view they agree with, the more likely they are to internalize the narrative and believe it as unmitigated fact — despite evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t matter that Ellen DeGeneres tries to push back by trying to get Sally Kern on the phone during her show, all that matters in the political calculus of Rovian “remember the base” politics is that the right people hear your message. Whether this translates into motivated voters for John McCain — who know firsthand how effective these campaigns can be in turning out voters who oppose you — remains to be seen. I’m sure as an individual, McCain abhors bigots like Kern, but as a politician who needs bigots like Kern (and her ilk) to vote for him, he’s probably not going to address the issue because it doesn’t directly affect his campaign. Obama, however, could easily be sucked into the vortex of a kind of race politics he’s trying to transcend if he doesn’t get far enough in front of the comments made by a guy who’s supposed to be his spiritual adviser.