16 October 2010

Sticking to Talking Points

Nowadays, politicians rely on talking points when they do media appearances to maximize your impact during the short segments of “earned media” (news coverage) as well as to keep the candidates on message.

Alvin Greene, the surprise South Carolina Democrat Senate nominee to challenge the incumbent Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC).  Greene has been derided as being a not ready for prime time candidate, even in his long shot attempt to depose DeMint in heavily Republican South Carolina.

Greene had an extended solo interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, which surely was a friendly media forum.  Greene clung so tightly to his simplistic talking points over demonizing DeMint that even a “Leaning Forward” anchor had to treat the segment as a joke. O’Donnell even tossed Greene a softball question “How did you get the nickname “the Turtle?”.  A seasoned politician would have seen this as an opportunity for branding, by evoking the Tortoise and the Hare fable, by identifying himself with a particular cause (perhaps a “green” turtle) just using the easy pitched query as a chance to humanize the candidate.  What did Alvin Greene do?  He answered the nickname question by saying to the host, “No. Like I said, DeMint started the recession...” I feel safe in prognosticating that Greene will remain an unemployed veteran.

Alvin Greene’s deathgrip on talking points made his responses seem scripted, his motives transparent and his message a punch line.  But at least he stayed on point with his talking points.  Jaded political pundits look at candidate debates look for the unscripted comment that creates the memorable moment.  Recall the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, when Senator Dan Quayle (R-IN) tried to score bipartisan points by comparing his experience with President Kennedy.  That opened the door for Senator Lloyd Bensen (D-TX) to shoot back “I knew Jack Kennedy... Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”  Bingo.

Modern Debates for the Presidency involve hours of preparation with heavy briefing books, murder boards and practices with mock opponents.  The object is to hone a response that is on point and personable without seeming scripted.  When President Reagan was running for re-election in 1984, he seemed tired during his first debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale (D-MN) which reinforced questions about whether the Gipper was too old for the job.  During the second debate, Reagan answered this question about age head on, but with his characteristic humor.  When Reagan insisted that he would not exploit his opponent’s youth and inexperience, Mondale could not help but laugh and it was game over for those concerns.  It was a memorable moment and did not seem to matter that it came from a prepared answer.

But most political junkies watch debates to see the unscripted moment.  Sure, a candidate can clumbsy  might fumble when expressing himself, like President Ford’s fumble in 1976 that “Poland is free”. But what more often happens is when a scripted answer or attack falls flat.  The 1988 Presidential Debates featured Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) answering a question about the death penalty in the hypothetical that his wife Kitty was murdered.  Dukakis answered in a detached, analytical manner which reflected his liberalism, but his lack of passion killed his likeability. In the 2004 Vice Presidential debate, Senator John Edwards (D-NC) thought that he would score points on a question about same sex marriage by politically outing Cheney’s daughter in his answer.  In the spin rooms, this velvet gloved ad hominem attack made the Pretty Boy look pretty mean and made his Two America’s persona less attractive.

Then there is the 2008 Florida Senate Roundtable between Republican Marco Rubio, Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D-FL 17th) and Governor Charlie Crist (?-FL).  In order to create a wedge issue amongst ethnic voters, Crist accused Rubio of “turning his back” on his Hispanic family as shown through his opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants. When Rubio called Crist out of bounds for this attack, Crist cowardly shifted responsibility for the assertion to a report in La Gaceta.  

It is amazing to think that an Anglo thinks that he can act as the arbiter of ¿Qué es más macho...?   Sorry Charlie, having a tan complexion does not make you a judge of all things Hispanic. In case Crist is not aware of it, Florida mostly has Cuban-Americans who have conservative political inclinations thus they would resent unfettered amnesty of illegal aliens.  So this political perry did not ingratiate Crist with the desired demographic and made him look like a race baiter.  Combine that with Rubio’s rejoinder about how Crist attacked Meek’s mother in an earlier ad and now he was attacking Rubio’s “family”.  Rather than riding on Meek’s fading star, Good Time Charlie might now find himself in back of the pack by carelessly shooting his mouth off in this debate.

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