Well, here we go, with me stepping way outside my pay grade on political thought. All of the essays on this subject will be rough. Many of them will contradict each other. Quite a bit of it will seem manipulative and morally bankrupt. Very work-in-progress. Only way to learn and grow, I guess.
I've been in conversation with some other bloggers, and was working on a longer series of articles, when Ezra Klein gave me the perfect in on the subject -- a link to Thomas Franks article in the New York Review of Books called What's the Matter with Liberals?
Franks discusses something that everyone EXCEPT those people in charge of electing Democratic presidents seemed to understand -- when your party has perceived weaknesses, don't run the guy who's the stereotype of that weakness. Or, as my friend Mark Waid said: "Why the fuck do we keep nominating Frazier Crane?"
My bigger point, leaving all the fancy policy stuff to the wonks who delight in them, is that the art of politics is convincing people to connect with you. When you have an idea, and the other guy has an idea -- if you don't connect in some primal way with the listeners your idea is never even going to get considered, no matter how much better it is on a rational level. In theory, "We're sending guys to fight in Iraq without body armor or properly equipped Humvees and then cutting taxes on rich folk" is literally the worst idea I could come up with to play in a mill town, unless that sentence ended with "... and then, your sons kiss each other." And yet the RR (Radical Right) gets a pass on this. Why? because as soon as guys like John Kerry (and God bless 'em, Al Franken and Janeane Garofolo) open their mouths, all the audience hears is "snobby snob snob think you're so smart!"
Now who the hell am I to even think I have something to contribute here? Well, let's say the candidate's job is to walk into a room of complete strangers and get them to like him. Connect with him. Wow, the few rare politicians who can do that, they're worth their weight in gold.
I did that for twelve years. So did hundreds of other people you've never heard of. We're stand-ups, and that's the ENTRY-LEVEL for the job.
A good stand-up can walk into a room, a bar with no stage and a shit mic, in the deep goddam South or Montana or Portland or Austin or Boston, and not only tell jokes with differing political opinions than the crowd, can get them to laugh. With all due respect to our brother performers in theater, etc., we can walk into a room of any size from 20 to 2000 complete strangers with no shared background and not just evoke emotion ... we can evoke a specific strong emotion every 15 seconds. For an HOUR. A good stand-up can make fun of your relationship with your wife, make fun of your job, make fun of your politics, all in front of a thousand strangers, and afterward that same person will go up and invite the stand-up to a barbecue.
In short -- every club audience is a swing state.
I think I speak for a lot of professional comics when I say there's nothing more frustrating than watching your candidate up on stage or on TV flail around without the basic rhetorical skills needed to score a 5 minute opening set at the Improv. Never mind the more advanced skills of the road comic. But because the vast amount of speaking a candidate does is either a.) to sedate, formal fundraising audiences or b.) rallies filled with the base, the flaws in presentation are hidden. The flaws in the greater theory of candidate communication are never exposed.
For starters, let's talk image. When I first started out on the road, I was a skinny guy with a big nose, a Boston accent and a Physics degree telling jokes in bars out West. I was hitting a wall of resistance in a lot of rooms. One night in Rawlins, Wyoming, the headliner -- a sweet road comic named "Boats" Johnson -- took me aside.
"You're a good joke writer. I mean, damn, there's some smart stuff in there."
"Thanks. But, uh..."
"They don't like you much." Boats handed me a beer. "Second show. Longneck. Always a longneck. Bring it on stage. Sip from it every now and then."
"I don't really drink on stage --"
"Fine. Fill it with water. Don't bring attention to it, just sip from it."
I shrugged. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. Learn to say 'ain't'. Don't change the jokes. Just learn to say 'ain't' every now and then."
The shows went, much, much better after that. I told the same gun control jokes, the same pro-gay marriage bits, the same making-fun of the culture wars jokes. But now I was killing.
There are two lessons to be taken from "Learn to say 'ain't'." First, the fundamental dynamic in all crowd interaction is us vs. them. Period. It's sad. Oh well. Get over it and win.
Now, the fine line here is that, the audience also always knows when you're being dishonest. That's worth hitting again. When you are on stage, the audience's collective mind can tell when you're not being yourself. And even more importantly, they can tell when you're lying to be one of "us". (Like Kerry hunting, or Dukakis in the tank). Changing yourself to fit the audience would be the wrong lesson to take from "Learn to say 'ain't.'" No, the lesson Boats was teaching me was that there's no problem with relaxing a bit and showing that you're not one of "them." He was teaching me that connection is a half-way game -- just extend out a little, and the audience will come the rest of the way. They will extend the boundary of "us" if you advance toward it. That was the genius of "compassionate conservatism."
People will relax and trust you when you're not trying to dazzle them with brainpower. It's okay to be the smartest guy in the room, but that shouldn't be the point of it. This is a liberal weakness, because they often seem to operate on the dual fuels of statistics and sputtering. They foolishly believe that the smartest, most morally equitable, most well-reasoned argument is the right one.
Well, of course it's the right one. It's just not necessarily the one that's going to WIN. And when they point, justifiably, at their idea which is backed up by all the data, all the statistics, and say "But, but this is the only logical solution", the implication is "... by not arriving at this yourself, you are stupid." And once somebody thinks you called them stupid, you've lost them forever. "What's the matter with Kansas?" Nothing, you supercilious fuck, what's the matter with you? Guess who I'm voting for every time you lecture me that you're on my side, and I just have to see that? Yeah, the other guy. Bye now. (this is tied into another rule of stand-up -- "You can never convince anyone of anything", which we'll deal with later)
"Us" is a very amorphous concept. Look how the conservative factions hang together. Catholics and evangelicals? Whaaaaa? You can slide into "Us" without compromising your values or positions. But that means making sure you define "Them" a.) clearly and b.) outside your target audience.
Am I endorsing Clintonist "triangulation"? Hell no. The job here is not to find a moderate position everyone can agree on, because then, frankly, you'll smell like an opportunist and the audience will turn on you (and you'll lose your base). No, the trick (and the RR has done this very sweetly) is to triangulate the audience away from your opponent's position, and by default towards your own.
The second lesson coincides with an interesting study mentioned in Freakonomics. Levitt discovered that in political races where the same opponents ran against each other multiple times, but spent vastly different sums of money from race to race -- the money didn't matter. The races shifted, on average, maybe a percentage point in each direction. Once the electorate has determined your identity, and whether you're "us" or "them", that's it.
This leads to an even more interesting idea. As a comic, these people have never seen you before, and you can control their perception of you in the first five minutes of them meeting you -- which will be the sum total of their perception. But this means that in politics, there are people out there who have already been in the spotlight so long, or who have so well-determined their cultural identities, that no matter how qualified, no matter how sincere, no matter how goddam perfect for the job they are ... they just won't be President in the current cultural atmosphere. It doesn't matter how wildly unfair that is. They can never, ever slide into "us." Kerry was so, so far outside of "us" that, frankly it was a testimony to how badly Bush has screwed up that he even got THAT close. Oh, and sorry, Hilary, I'm talking to you. (oddly, if she weren't burdened with her First Lady Identity, her Senate Identity might pull it off.) On the other hand, I'm also talking to Frist and Santorum.
I feel a digression coming on. I'll split that off in another post called --
(NOTE: some feedback and comments also here)
(EDIT: 2/22/06 -- hey, seeing as this has recently warmed up, a small update post here.)