Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Reel World Politics

Cinematic sub-texts shape campaigns of strategy vs. substance.

We are only half-way through the Republican Convention and there are still two months to go before Election Day, but the underlying cinematic metaphors in use by each Presidential campaign are already apparent. Although the main stream media tend to discuss election winners and losers in terms of horse racing metaphors, it is clear that for this election, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have adopted the dramatic arcs found in popular movies as their guides. The use of a movie metaphor gives the candidates a pre-written, pre-vetted script from our popular culture of what to do on the campaign in the media environments that they can control and how to react to the unforeseeable situations that inevitably arise.

For John McCain, and perhaps more pertinently, for his campaign strategists, it is increasingly clear that their motivating movie metaphor is “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” This Steve Martin/Michael Caine comedy follows the competition between two con-men. Caine is a suave, sophisticated poseur who has no trouble convincing gullible heiresses that he is a deposed aristocrat seeking funds to reclaim his rightful throne. Martin is a small-time con artist who stumbles into Caine’s scam-monde and knows a good thing when he sees it. The two antagonists decide to settle their differences by competing for the wealth of an American soap heiress (Glenne Headley). The salient campaigning example found in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is the give and take between the two con-men and the way they adapt their strategies to take advantage of the each others perceived weaknesses.

In a similar fashion, John McCain’s political campaign seems to operate purely at a strategic level. Issues of fundamental political agendas, moral constants and national priorities take a back seat to strategic imperatives. Thus the McCain solution to Obama’s commanding performance at the Democratic National Convention is not to confront issues of policy or perspective, but to trump continuing media coverage by nominating Sara Palin as his Vice-Presidential co-runner. That Governor Palin is neither qualified for the job, nor was sufficiently vetted by McCain’s advisors is not as important as winning that strategic round in the Presidential contest.

For Barack Obama, it is clear that his guiding cinematic metaphor is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with perhaps a dash of “Indiana Jones” thrown in. Stigmatized as elitist, arrogant (code word for “uppity”) and aloof, criticized for missing opportunities to exploit faux pas and verbal gaffs of his opponent, Obama has faced speculation that he’s not tough enough to compete in the world arena. His critics miss the point. Adopting the James Stewart/Harrison Ford persona allows Senator Obama not only to present himself as the “lone” outsider battling the entrenched corruption of Washington, but also to conduct a presidential campaign that is not driven by strategic imperatives, but which raises substance and principle above strategy. Obama’s emulation of “Mr. Smith” allows him to follow the movie’s dramatic arc to ultimate success in his pursuit of the Presidency.

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