When they attend tomorrow’s ceremony for the 9/11 bombings, it’s a safe bet it will be the last time Presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain behave decently toward one another. This election year is starting to feel like it’s going to be one of the nastier campaigns on record.
This is a year where the sexist and racist stereotypes we all share are going to get folded, bent and mutilated in ways that will offend each and every one of us at one point or another. Americans discuss their differences in code and this may well be the year when the code get deciphered in some new ways for new audiences.
It’s not just the pit bull in lipstick as Republican Vice Presidential contender Sarah Palin calls herself. And it’s not Obama’s use of that timeworn phrase “lipstick on a pig”. Hey, Barry, Iowa was last year. We’re past pigs now. Or we were until Alaska’s governor decided to crack wise about how tough she is. Oh, wait, Palin was joking – no offense meant, governor. No, you’re not pig-like at all. If I were going to insult you, I’d probably have used the gender-specific “sow.”
The real problem here is the seeming closeness in the campaign’s goals and the ways in which they are articulating their messages for large groups of voters.
That’s not to say that Obama and McCain have the same ideas for how to run the country. They don’t. But their campaigns are pitching very similar messages to a very small group of voters: Vote for change. Change in health care, change in the economy, change in how the nation does business – at home and abroad.
That’s not exactly a hugely original strategy for either party. Voter disgust with the way Washington claims to “work” is high. So high that the largest political party in the country is “none of the above,” a group that in four years has gone from about 7 percent of registered voters to just about 20 percent.
“None of the above” are often called “independent” voters and this year they’ve got the election in their hands. And, of that group of independent voters, women are considered a key voting block, making up about 60 percent of the “none of the above” faction. And women decide late. Which is campaign-speak for “they change their minds. dammit.”
So why does that mean things will get nasty?
Lots of politicians think the best way to get women to vote one way or another is to scare them then offer them the welcoming broad shoulder of security and authority. It worked for George Bush. You may not have thought you were a “security Mom” until you took one look at John Kerry on a windsurfer.
Other girl-baiting tactics include hiring women and making a big fuss about it. The Republicans are very, very good at this. Two examples: Sandra Day O’Connor, first women to sit on the Supreme Court, and, today, Sarah Palin. Of course, Sarah Palin couldn’t shine O’Conner’s shoes but that could easily devolve into a trivial argument about, “qualifications” and, well, a lot of women – paging Hillary Rodham Clinton – find that conversation offensive.
But “qualifications” is a word that often sums up our ideas about race. For years, the white folk who run corporate America have bemoaned the absence of “qualified” black applicants. They’d love to hire more African-Americans, they’d say, but none who are qualified apply. This while they hire their best friends’ sons – white kids – for the mailroom and other entry-level jobs.
“Qualified” is a word that many white folks use to say “well, he’s not like us” and that’s very much the subtext of the talk about Obama’s ability to lead. It’s not lost on the candidate or his family.The fashion rags have already noted Michelle Obama’s dress – conservative, stylish and Jackie-Kennedy like – and it’s comfort factor. Tall, lanky and dark-skinned, Michelle Obama is dressing to reassure people that she’s not Angela Davis. It’s only kinda of working as The New Yorker slyly observed.
Which brings us to the last subtext: race. Using a black man to scare white voters, particularly women (Security Moms!) is a tried and true tactic. It’s kept the South Republican for a generation. It got George H.W. Bush elected. And it may well work for McCain’s campaign. The tactic backfired on Clinton, mostly because she was sloppy in her language and a little too-straightforward about her appeal to white men who don’t wanna take orders from a black man. But it may well work – with a chilling effectiveness – for some talented McCain surrogate.
Which begs a question: Where is Ann Coulter? And why has she been so quiet so long?