If there is one thing Republicans are good at, even better at than creating deficits or cutting rich people’s taxes, it is defining their opponents. Many people in America who might be considered “liberal,” if you ask them a series of questions about their beliefs, will never own up to the word, preferring to call themselves “independents” or “moderates.” Because, for the last 25 years, the right has made “liberal” seem as welcome as “rapist.”
Underneath that characterization, the right wing has spent the better part of the same time frame tagging Democrats with what political experts call a “master narrative.” Usually this involves some sort of emasculation—like Jimmy Carter being afraid of a “killer rabbit,” or Walter Mondale as some sort of effete Minnesota bureaucrat against Ronald Reagan’s faux-macho Westerner. By the time they got to Michael Dukakis, the plan was set in stone—The Washington Times spent the entire 1988 presidential campaign season deriding the diminutive Massachusetts governor as “the little duke,” to compare unfavorably him to John Wayne.
Unfortunately, this plan went awry with in 1992, as you can’t fit a womanizing Southern sax player into the wuss picture when he’s running against an effete Connecticut scion of a U.S. senator who’s mailing address was a hotel room in Houston. George Bush was “Poppy” in 1992, and Bill Clinton was “Elvis.” The preprogrammed war games don’t work too well in that scenario. Suddenly, the party that had spent its time trying to make its candidates seem like good ol’ boys came up against a real one, and had to turn tail and start deriding Clinton as “Bubba,” in the process demeaning all those pickup-driving rednecks the Republicans had been cultivating for 12 years.
Luckily for them, Al Gore was a breath of fresh air. They could run an authentic Texas shitkicker against Gore, who, despite deep Tennessee roots, had spent far too long in Washington. Suddenly out came the emasculating talking points again; by wrapping author Naomi Wolf and Gore’s supposed flirtation with “earth tones” around his neck, they did their best to once again paint Democrats as wimps. In the end, it didn’t matter, as the election came down to having five Republican votes on the Supreme Court, despite George W. Bush losing by a half-million votes to Gore.
The 2004 election saw two themes test-marketed against Democrats: One, used against Howard Dean when he appeared to be the front-runner, was “crazy.” By the time Dean’s appeal faded in comparison to the stolid seriousness of John Kerry, the meme had garnered hold enough that an out-of-context snippet of a Dean speech to his followers became the “Dean scream.” It was seized upon by the right-wing press, thereby infecting the mainstream media, which is all too easily led into biting on a pre-formed narrative. Within two weeks, Dean was considered an unstable has-been, a trope that was again trotted out when he mounted his outsider candidacy for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.
In the meantime, Kerry, despite his stellar military service, three Purple Hearts, ability to captain a boat, drive a Harley, and fly a helicopter, instantly became a flip-flopping, windsurfing pussy-whipped servant to a foreign-born wife. Oh, and he “looks French,” as one Bush surrogate famously put it. When Bush took the throttle for a few seconds in his now-famous mission accomplished jet landing aboard an aircraft carrier in a perfectly created television moment, right-wing harpy Ann Coulter gushed, “It’s hard to imagine any Democrat being able to do that.”
Now that we are only two years away from the next presidential election, the Republicans are already beginning to ramp up their putative master narrative for the next election, and it’s pretty clear who’s in their sights. At the start of February, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman trotted out the idea that Hillary Clinton “seems to have a lot of anger,” and that “I don’t think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates.”
Boy, that was subtle. Sort of like Barbara Bush not wanting to say what she thought of Geraldine Ferraro, but that it “rhymes with ‘witch.’” Republicans like their male opponents to seem like women, and they want their female opponents to come off as lesbians, hence the “angry” test drive.
But this upcoming election season, if the Dems really want to fight fire with fire, there’s a ready-made narrative that fits the GOP like a custom-made glove. Republicans: You can’t trust them.
You can’t trust them to run a country, you can’t trust them to live up to their claims of “smaller government,” you can’t trust them to fund their promises of a secure nation or to rebuild New York after Sept. 11 or New Orleans after Katrina. You can’t trust them to get you into a war or out of one. And you certainly can’t trust Dick Cheney with a gun.
2008 might be a while off. But if Democrats were smart for a change, they’d start framing their opponents now. It’s not as if the narrative doesn’t fit.
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