Saturday, 23 August 2008

Personal stories, truth and the art of political war

Leading Liberal Democrats heading to Denver, Colorado for the Democratic National Convention will be able to see how Barack Obama uses his personal story to present himself as the man of destiny, part of America’s unfolding history and, importantly, the man with a vision for America’s future.

The American political pundit Michael Barone notes Gallup poll data showing that nominees got a 5 percent or better opinion poll bounce from 14 of the 16 national conventions between 1976 and 2004. Bill Clinton got the biggest bounce (30 points) in 1992, but John “reporting for duty” Kerry actually lost ground in 2004.

No, personal stories aren’t just a schmaltzy American thing. Remember Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham and then John “the boy from Brixton” Major, in the run-up to the 1992 election.

The interesting thing is how the stories will stand up under heavy fire. Barone thinks that:

"The Democrats can usually depend on the mainstream media accepting their narratives uncritically, while the Republicans can expect them to punch holes in their storylines."

He goes on to list aspects of the Obama narrative that the media may like to scrutinise.

Fair enough. But they also may like to take a more careful look at the personal story being spun by John McCain, whom the New York Times columnist Frank Rich has dubbed “the candidate we still don’t know”.

McCain’s story is that, on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the religious right and sleazy influence peddlers, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors.

But Rich says that with the exception of his imprisonment in North Vietnam, “every aspect of [McCain’s] profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct”. This extends from McCain’s carefully assembled image of the Republican maverick who criticises the Bush Administration to his links to the intolerant religious right and to the fact that “McCain’s top officials and fund-raisers have past financial ties to nearly every domestic and foreign flashpoint, from Fannie Mae to Blackwater to Ahmad Chalabi to the government of Georgia.”

So far, McCain is getting away with it, with very little media scrutiny.

Let's assume that Michael Barone is correct and Obama is also getting a free pass. Don’t worry, the Republican attack machine will not be so generous. In a brilliant piece in the Washington Post, Michael Kinsley shows how they do it:

"Most amazing among the principles of the Republican Way of War is: Don't waste much time and energy probing the enemy's weaknesses. Go directly to his biggest strength. "

In 1988, the Republicans turned Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who came from humble beginnings, into an elitist and George H.W. Bush, a privileged, preppie Ivy Leaguer, into a “good old boy”. In 2004, they attacked John Kerry’s war service in Vietnam, despite the fact that George W. Bush, not only had avoided Vietnam by joining the National Guard but had avoided much of the National Guard. In both cases, the media helped, if only through negligence in some case.

Kinsley suggests that in 2008, they will turn their guns on Barack Obama’s charisma and eloquence:

". . . as if popularity itself were a disqualifying factor and whoever draws the larger crowds is by definition the lesser candidate. "

This type of counter-story telling happens in the UK too. The Liberal Democrats are often accused of being “all things to all people”, lacking in real beliefs, and worse. The Lib Dems have been unequivocal on big issues – see Iraq, ID cards and nuclear power – and opinion leaders in others, such as Europe and climate change. The “wishy washy” tag often comes from Labour, who have been all over the place on nuclear power and the Conservatives, whose behaviour on Iraq gives cynical politics a bad name. But it works.

Obama’s fate may well depend on how well he responds to the attempts to cut down the centre pole of his personal narrative. Perhaps Nick Clegg and co might pick up some tips from Obama’s advisers?

One more thing: McCain machine is better than Obama’s at telling lies. If you don’t believe me, take a look at, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Hey, why don’t we have something like that it in the UK?

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