7 Chapters
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3 Addressing “The Issues”

Michael Lempert Indiana University Press ePub

 

That “The Issues” are a hallowed discursive institution in U.S. electoral politics is suggested by the rote outrage expressed when people fail to address them. The day after the Democratic Party’s twenty-first and final primary debate of 2007–2008, held in Philadelphia for finalists Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama aired this complaint before supporters in North Carolina: “Last night, I think we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people.” Irate columnists echoed Obama, like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin (2008), who railed against the moderators’ “ ‘gotcha’ questions with no relevance to the problems we face,” or Nico Pitney (2008) of the Huffington Post, who, in a bid to convince readers of the new lows to which political debates have sunk, tried his hand at quantification: he sorted “policy” from “non-policy” from “scandal” questions in the debates between Obama and Clinton, arguing that the more recent were scandal-heavy and policy-light.1 The moderators, concluded Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch, “disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.”2 Unfazed by this reflexive “debate over the debate,” as the kerfuffle came to be called, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s stalwart FactCheck.org-ers, unswerving verificationists all, continued to subject the candidate responses to the acid test of truth or falsity: Did Obama really say that he wouldn’t wear a flag pin? (Yes.) Did “people” die from the Weather Underground’s bombing in the 1970s, as Hillary Clinton suggested when she tied Obama to former Underground member William Ayers? (Yes, but the three who died were group members.)3

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2 Getting It “Ju … st Right!”

Michael Lempert Indiana University Press ePub

 

Many people think about the difference between the 2003–2004 presidential campaign and that of 2007–2008 in terms of the centrality of the Internet, the number of voters of various demographic groups who cast ballots on Election Day, and so forth. One of the important comparisons, however, not to be overlooked if one is focused on how Message politics works in America, is what we can term the “Goldilocks Principle of Message-ing.” There is a “ju … st right!” use of Message, neither too much—especially of the negative kind—nor too little—especially of one’s own positive kind, the communicative weakness or absence of which renders one extremely vulnerable to the other candidates’ inevitable barrage of the negative.

So, notwithstanding its apparent effectiveness in shaping the results of the election in 2004 (for President George W. Bush was, in fact, reelected), the powerful Republican Message machine ascribed to the genius of Karl Rove seemed, in retrospect, to call the very enterprise of Message-ing into a kind of official disrepute among the media connoisseurs and much of the public—if, paradoxically, it was still clandestinely admired for its decisive success. Hence, one of the important stances in the 2008 election cycle was to seem to be above, beyond, or in some way independent of Message. And interestingly the two figures who would emerge as the respective candidates of the major parties in 2008 very much embraced an “anti-Message” or “post-Message” Message, at least in their parties’ primary campaigns and somewhat beyond. As a demonstration of what we might term reversion to the institutional norm, however, we must note that in the final phases of the 2008 campaigns, Message, and in particular negative Message attempting to define the opponent, was once again in full force. Here we compare these two electoral cycles in more detail in respect of telling moments of “too much,” “too little,” and “ju … st right” Message.

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4 Ethno-Blooperology

Michael Lempert Indiana University Press ePub

 

On Tuesday morning, the twenty-third of October 2007, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seemed to some to have done it. Talking to the Greenwood, South Carolina, chamber of commerce on free trade agreements, he digressed to focus on the threat of radical Islam and the “War on Terror.” He sharply criticized the opposition of the local Democratic aspirant for the presidential nomination, former senator John Edwards, to Bush administration policies captioned by the phrase the War on Terror. “I think that is a position which is not consistent with the fact,” Romney said, presumably intending either “with the facts” or just “with fact.” Grammatical error. Slip of the old phrase generator. A minor—a miniscule—dysfluency of parole, actualized language. But Romney went on, as long as he was criticizing Senator Edwards, seeming to spread the partisan criticism wider:

Actually, just look at what Osam—uh—Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. “That is the battlefield. That is the central place,” he said. “Come join us under one banner.”

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7 What Goes Around …

Michael Lempert Indiana University Press ePub

 

How much of what a candidate or incumbent says and does makes it through the concentric layers of media filtration to reach at least a segment or sector of the public? And in what form do the doings and sayings as they are represented by media reports advance or counter the Message intended by the occasion of those doings and sayings? Here we deal with the circulation of Message—that is, with the chains of reports of reports of reports of … happenings or events the apparent movement of which through social space-time is controlled, in our political public sphere, by the organized political press across a variety of media.

Reporting a prior event, in print journalism or elsewhere, is never merely a report, never a passive, disinterested relay of narrated event in the past to addressees in the present. It is well known that one’s personal or organizationally derived attitude toward how a prior event should or should not become newsworthy colors how we report it, and that this coloring can have consequences—“media effects” as students of communication are wont to say. Less obvious is the fact that our very sense that we can follow the principals of a reportable political event by tracking the circulation of their Message-worthy images in social space-time depends on many such events of reporting. As prior events get reported and re-reported, extended chains of interdiscursivity form, and these chains across events of reporting events that themselves report events … elaborate a network across which we feel the palpable illusion of Message-in-motion. Understanding the crystallization of Message requires that we break up this illusion, especially, as in this extraordinary example, when there are competing Messages sent through the highly reticulated institutional structure of the White House press corps and its sponsoring press organizations.

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1 Introduction: “Message” Is the Medium

Michael Lempert Indiana University Press ePub

“Message” Is the Medium

If the genius of the Clinton campaign was its disciplined focus on message—“The economy, stupid”—the Clinton transition stumbled slightly out of the gate.

Although it harnessed masterfully the new prestige of the president-elect with Clinton’s symbolic reaching out to common people during his walk on Georgia Avenue last week, it has also endured a torrent of stories about such “off message” matters as homosexuals in the military and the role of Hillary Clinton.

Washington Post, 22 November 1992

In their professional jargon, political insiders call it simply—and to many outsiders, misleadingly—“message.” It is the politician’s publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere. In this book we examine the ways in which modern electoral politics in the United States revolves around contests over “message.”

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