Saturday, December 8, 2007

Come to the Dark Side

It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that for lots of folks, watching the electoral process fulfills the same needs for vicarious experience that soap operas do. The long, complicated back-stories that involve scheming, backbiting, one-upmanship, blackmail, all to produce a series of vertiginous rises and heart-stopping falls that conclude in improbable and unsatisfying outcomes—the narratives of electoral politics seem founded on the same never-ending story that drives General Hospital. Occasionally, they even involve the reappearance of a villain you’d happily left for dead, who somehow managed to get down from that 300-foot cliff in the middle of a typhoon to return his or her evil business of destroying the hero you know is too good to be true by tempting them with some dastardly ruse.

Such is the advice recently offered by none other than Karl Rove to Barack Obama in the pages of FT this week. Rove has managed to salvage what is left of his political career by writing a column on the 2006-2008 general election for Newsweek; this is roughly the professional equivalent of selling yourself as a movie critic to Entertainment Weekly after directing a monumentally expensive action-hero flick to box-office and studio ruin. Perhaps needing to pay off a favor, the normally sensible FT has allowed Rove to grace its pages with a memo-styled piece to the Illinois Senator that contains sure-fire Hilary-beating strategies.

There are a number of things to say about the piece—we could start by asking why the right-edge of the GOP has such a strong negative obsession with HRC (seriously, it’s a little puzzling if you’re looking for something more complex than the snarky “Mommy issues” answer).

Rove basically advises Obama to create a figure more aggressive, more direct, and more simplistic: “sharpen your attacks,” “make them more precise,” “focus on the doubts people have about her.” Long answers make you sound equivocating or calculating, playing the high road makes you look like (and this is a direct quote) “a vitamin-deficient Adlai Stevenson.” In short, he advises him to look more like the candidates we’ve been seeing for the past fifteen years and of whom we are, if Obama’s support is anything to go by, tired.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Rove would love to see Clinton trounced in the primaries, but given that we know that gifts from Pluto usually mean a lifetime in the Underworld, I can’t help but wonder what the strings are on this one. I’m one of the people who thinks that HRC is simply too polarizing a figure to win the general election—I know way too many people in the political center who say that they’d vote for the other candidate, regardless of who it is, rather than vote for her. My guess is that Rove thinks that way as well, which makes me wonder whether he’s giving Obama some bad advice here (in the guise of a lot of the conventional wisdom circulating in the mainstream media coverage on Obama’s Clinton strategy), hoping to ensure her nomination.

I’m inclined towards this view partly because some of his advice is just plain wrong-headed, and I’m sure he knows it. He tells Obama to look at HRC when he disagrees with her at debates, as avoiding that makes him look “weak and ineffectual.” This is just bad acting advice. The major audience for the debates is the one sitting on the couch at home, and they don’t even know the orientation of the line up. For all they know, if Obama looks at Clinton when he disagrees with her, he could be looking a bug in the air. The rule is “look into the camera.” At the most, Obama could “cheat” towards Clinton a little, but he needs to be making his primary connection with people at home.

Rove also suggests that Obama “gently belittle” Clinton when “whenever she tries to use disagreements among Democrats as an excuse to complain about being picked on.” Man, would that be a bad idea. First of all, the complaint about being picked on is straight out of Rove’s own playbook—Bush used it in debates with Ann Richards when he beat her for the Texas governorship. Secondly, it would hardly help Obama to genuinely go after Clinton while she’s saying she’s being picked on. Obama’s primary message has been “I’m a different kind of candidate” and a big part of his appeal to white voters is as a black man who seems non-aggressive toward white people. Going after Clinton would undermine both those qualities. While Obama’s strategy of not naming names explicitly when he talks about “those who supported the war” does come across as amorphous, it also allows him to question about the general principals of his opponents without attacking them as people. “Belittling” Clinton—especially as the first woman front-runner for the Presidency—would either make Obama seem weaker by making him look defensive, or would make him look like a bully (which it would, in fact, make him).

Additionally, Rove betrays in his advice all the ways in which he’s obsessed with a whole set of issues that really very few people in the electorate have on horizon. He lectures Obama on letting Clinton get away with evading why some documents about her role as First Lady haven’t been released (um, maybe because most of us think there are more pressing issues at hand?). The comparison to Adlai Stevenson will get a rise out of Dem voters who were disappointed by the results of his runs against Eisenhower, but let’s be real here, those elections were half a century ago. Does Rove really think that the U.S. faces the same world and the same problems that it did in 1952? Or does he hope to goad Iowan voters from that generation—who may well be the only folks in the state who actually understand how to participate in a process that seems well-nigh medieval to the rest of us—into action?

It could also be that Rove has given up on the GOP for the time being (or is massively pissed-off for being side-lined), and is genuinely spoiling for a good old-fashioned mud fight between Clinton and Obama. What think you, dear readers? Advice from the Dark Lord, or smart strategy?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The United Colors of Barack Obama

From “How the World Works” at Salon, Andrew Leonard brings us the video that will almost certainly take the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” award for 2006-2008 campaign season. I think this even beats Obama Girl in that category.

Leonard—whose blog focuses on globalization issues—writes, “it’s impossible to say whether the video means anything.” I’m not so sure that’s true. Neither do the folks making comments on the video, a couple of whom worry that the piece will add fuel to the “oh no, Obama’s a Muslim!” fire that’s been smoking quietly over in the extreme-right’s corner.

I'm sympathetic to the folks who are concerned that this video might provoke a "throw the brown people out" response, but it seems to me that the people who think that way are not going to vote for Obama regardless of the piece. Moreover, if Bobby Jindal—whose personal history as a South Asian man born in Baton Rouge to Hindu, Punjabi parents has a lot in common with Obama’s—can win the Louisiana governorship, I think we may have misidentified the ways in which race actually functions within electoral politics today, even among more conservative voters.

As many commentators have noted, one of the striking elements of Obama's political rise is his uncanny ability to get people who have been afraid of or have made fun of other black politicians to rally behind him—and passionately so. My 87 year-old, white, Dixiecrat-turned-Republican grandmother from Mississippi, who is planning to vote for Obama, is a great example of that dynamic. Scholars of race have noted that in the last twenty years or so it’s become more or less socially unacceptable to hold and express white supremacist points of view, particularly towards African Americans, and especially towards ones like the Harvard-educated Obama who have been so extraordinarily successful. While attempts to derail Obama’s popularity through allegations of Muslim ties are no doubt a way to get around that problem, I’m not sure that this video actually undermines him successfully on that count.

I think instead that this mash-up feeds (or feeds on) the "Benetton" factor behind Obama's success. Part of his appeal is precisely his unusual background—he embodies "the colors of the world," and in doing so makes us feel better about ourselves as Americans. His success confirms our national mythology of the U.S. as a place of meritocracy, that anyone can achieve “life, liberty, and property” here if they just work hard enough—even a biracial guy with a father from Africa and an Arabic-derived name. He makes us feel cosmopolitan at a time when many Americans worry that we’ve seriously tarnished our reputation abroad. The visuals that drive this video—especially the images of the Indian women singing inside of Obama’s mouth, making it appear as though they're providing him with the words he sings, or "animating" his suit as they dance—reinforce the idea that when we vote for Obama, we vote for the world inside of him. That association probably is a frightening proposition if you’re afraid of the brown people of the world taking over the US, or an exciting one if you're inclined to think of the foreign as simply a novel commodity, which I'm inclined to think is another element of the appeal of "Brand Obama." A less cynical possibility might be that if you feel that American politics are hopelessly corrupt and moribund (and there are plenty of reasons to do so right now), you might think that Obama's multiply-national background will breathe new life into our own political dynamics, that other countries seem to possess better political processes than our own, and Obama might bring those to bear on our own degraded political topography.

I’m still trying to find out more information on the video. According to Ultrabrown, the song Obama sings is “Chori Chori Hum Gori Se Pyaar Karenge (I’ll Secretly Love the Pretty Girl)” from The Guru. He posts the original scene from the movie, and it’s actually really fantastic. I don’t know the original (guess what’s up next in my Netflix queue), but the clip features a party guest in “traditional” Indian garb starting to dance the macarena, which the very haute guests, all of whom are American, excitedly join into as “one of those Dervish, spiritual, transient things!” I think it’s actually a really brilliant move for Michael Stevens (the video’s creator) to use this scene to parody Obama’s appeal as “the global candidate.” Too bad his other videos, which generally feature scenes of Hilary Clinton farting, aren’t anywhere near as sophisticated or imaginative. I’ll update if I discover anything interesting.