PULP Politics: Blank Canvas

10 Mar

If the media narrative has anything to do with it, then Barack Obama will coast on his current popular and delegate lead to becoming the Democrat presidential candidate, but only if he can maintain his brand and his iconic status against a higher-profile underdog. With John McCain, the Republican Party has to rethink some of its tenets and coalesce around a fairly divisive figure who is already appearing—for both better and worse—to be smoothing out his rougher edges in preparation for becoming Bush 2.0.


It is difficult to assess the effects that the cycle of media production and consumption have on the current presidential race, but as usual the press differentiation between candidates comes down to very stark dichotomies—there are rarely nuanced pieces about McCain, Obama or Clinton in the mainstream press—which play on media messages that the campaigns themselves propagate.


Up until now, policy positions and potential presidential ability were not on the agenda. I argued—and still would—that an iconic figure which can represent the US, re-build some of its national image both within and without the country, and to some extent (appear to) hit the ‘reset button’ after eight years of George W. Bush, is precisely the job description for POTUS in 2009.


Looking back to the last time I wrote about the primaries in January, the media narratives and ‘low’ Pulp press perspectives on the candidates have, since then, altered to involve more detail on policy and personality. But it is difficult to get away from the initial images that the three contenders were attributed, and nuanced accounts—those that do not fall prey to Pulp icon-making—are few and far between. So representing the right Pulp icon for the job is the task at hand.


John McCain is now officially the Republican choice (barring Ron Paul’s background hum as his campaign continues, undeterred by futility) and received Bush’s endorsement last week at a stagey, cagey, somewhat awkward press conference after a hotdog lunch with the President. His problem, however, is that the media Pulp image he and the press cultivated together was only feasible up until he actually won the nomination. After all, the President of the USA cannot be a perennial underdog. His success in stealing enough votes from rivals as they self-destructed in the foreground came from this image of McCain as the dogged, ‘straight-talk’ candidate fighting against the more establishment figures such as Mitt Romney.


McCain will—I hope—also self-destruct, as his image dies in the press over the coming months. Already the Vicki Iseman pseudo-scandal cooked up by the New York Times, as well as an ‘altercation’ (read: blustering stubbornness in the face of questions from a previously-besotted media) just a few days ago with Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller asking about McCain’s being offered the Vice President rôle by Kerry in 2004, have laid the groundwork for his dissolution, as well as a more careful look at his record (not too impressive for a 25-year career in the senate) and his knowledge of foreign affairs (scarily lacking). This will sap his appeal. Voters remaining by him will remember solely the remnants of the media’s ‘straight-talking, ex-POW, fighter pilot, war hero, maverick’ message.


Hillary Clinton has taken an opposite trajectory in message terms. Her Pulp media persona was already determined before she began campaigning or even became a Senator in 2000: wronged spouse and failed instigator of healthcare reform, and latterly a staunch and dogged Democrat with a high media profile pre-built for her Senate races. Clinton was a media shoe-in and surefire frontrunner for the nomination early last year, but in spite of Texas (won in delegate terms by Obama due to the caucus) and Ohio, she now remains significantly behind Obama in both pledged delegates and the popular vote.


For Clinton it has been all about personality. Popular Pulp perceptions hold that she has remained too aloof (even compared to the more restricted press corps access to Obama) and has therefore been seen as cold and calculating. Campaign tactics of ‘going negative’, such as comparing Obama to Ken Starr or stating that he is not a Muslim “as far as I know” (more in-built pre-parsing of thoughts than a tactic, I believe), leave a nasty afterimage when set against their smiling camaraderie during debates. In short, Clinton was trained to act and parse too carefully, and employed a serious of incapable campaign staff members (good, loyal friends over successful strategists) and thus has seemed distant and unapproachable. Much better than McCain in terms of active knowledge and policy, only overcoming her negative Pulp personality and selling her experience and skills more positively will turn Democrats back to her.

I don’t pretend neutrality, and as a future Permanent Legal Resident in the US I would be most happy with Pulp President Obama. But he hasn’t yet won the toss, and in facing McCain he is going to be subject to increasingly negative pressure under which his more ‘touchy-feely’ campaign might more easily buckle. There is, after all, a sliver of Clinton’s campaign brain which still realises she cannot completely destroy Obama’s image at present, in case he and not she is the nominee (though primarily because it would damage her own future prospects). Obama is the youthful, change-oriented, new rising star within the Party, and his ability to motivate newer—and younger—voters has given him an edge in organisation, but also in media terms, meaning a string of wins in the various caucus states.


As much as anything, Obama has allowed himself to be a blank canvas onto which voters have been able to paint their political psyche, and his message, for all its inspiration, boils down to catchphrases and epigrams usually reserved for television presidents and politicians—‘hope’, ‘change’, ‘we’, ‘America’ are the catch-alls he uses when tapping the current disaffection with political life in the US. The words are in and of themselves meaningless, but the Pulp iconography it creates drives his campaign, which on the whole has benefited from much better management than McCain’s or Clinton’s. His personal characteristics turn people on to the message, but he must escape the notion that—as Clinton has suggested—he will not be ‘ready on day one’ to act as commander-in-chief.

Of course policy does matter at this stage, and although John McCain seems to have very few concrete or comprehensive plans for anything (other than a potentially permanent occupation of Iraq), he has time to hone policy whilst the Democrats surrogate-squabble about who would be ready on a day one which is still nine months away. As media-created Pulp personalities, it will be difficult for Hillary Clinton to break away from the image that she and the press—under the weight of her past—have co-authored. On the other hand Barack Obama is a new personality, and one which indeed has presidential qualities about it, despite the near-constant accusations of executive inexperience. Maybe so, but discounting being a president’s spouse or a prisoner of war, nor do Clinton and McCain have a great deal of relevant executive experience. Since when has the presidency been about qualification rather than spin? Vote for the best Pulp you can lay your hands on!


DLR 10.3.08


One Response to “PULP Politics: Blank Canvas”

  1. Indy March 18, 2008 at 3:43 pm #

    1. Don’t you mean Bush 3.0?
    2. I don’t think you’ve got the Republican landscape at all: McCain is the establishment candidate par excellence. Romney was shaping himself as kind of a dark horse and was really playing on his difference, what with the “Kennedy-esque” speech about religion and using solely his family to campaign in Iowa. There was nothing establishment about Romney’s bid. Which is probably why the Republicans didn’t vote for him. They’ve voted STABLE throughout the whole primary season, which is why McCain has the nom.
    3. Assuming you know who (heinous bitch) Ann Coulter is, you may be interested to watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuTqgqhxVMc
    4. “Won the toss” sounds dirty.

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