“What’s wrong with politics today? The candidates and the incumbents spend their time attacking each other’s personal character instead of attacking the issues and problems that face our country and our families.”
— Mike!™ McGavick
George Lakoff simply illustrates the subtle power of framing in the title of his seminal book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. This is Cognitive Psychology 101: the very instruction not to think of a pachyderm, of course, instantly conjures its image.
I’m not sure whether Democrats have studiously read their Lakoff, but Mike!™ McGavick and his team apparently have. For in constantly stressing his desire to campaign on “the issues” rather than “personal character attacks,” the Republican US Senate wannabe has in fact made character the central theme of his campaign.
One simply cannot accept McGavick’s “civility” meme without inferring that his opponent, Sen. Maria Cantwell, is not sufficiently civil.
Indeed the very preamble to Mike!™’s much talked about public mea culpa is little more than a thinly veiled attack on the character of his opponent. Read it in its entirety (the emphasis is mine):
What’s wrong with politics today? The candidates and the incumbents spend their time attacking each other’s personal character instead of attacking the issues and problems that face our country and our families. They also pretend that they are without fault, yet we all know that none of us are.
In this campaign for example, my opponents have attacked my leadership in turning around Safeco. I am even the subject of a politically-motivated lawsuit. But I am convinced that these kinds of character attacks don’t matter to most people here. I have held dozens of open public forums in communities all around Washington state, and not a single person asked me about my compensation at Safeco. Instead, people ask about the many challenges that face their own families and our country.
Still, I know that the character attacks against me will not stop. So, how about I just tell you directly the very worst and most embarrassing things in my life for you to know, and then I will get back to talking about how much the U.S. Senate needs a new direction.
What does one take away from this statement? That Mike!™ wants to talk about the issues, but his opponent does not. That his opponent engages in character attacks, but Mike!™ refuses. That Mike!™ admits to human frailty, while his opponent “pretends” to be perfect.
But most importantly, that the “new direction” Mike!™ wants to take the US Senate — towards a more civil debate on the “issues and problems that face our country and our families” — is exactly the opposite direction of where his opponent is leading the nation and the state.
What a clever frame. This isn’t a campaign about “the issues” — it’s a campaign about campaigning about the issues, with the clear implication being that his opponent refuses to embrace this lofty ideal. At it’s very core, Mike!™’s “civility” meme, as noble as it may appear, is nothing more than a personal attack on Sen. Cantwell’s character.
Don’t think of an elephant.
In this context, Mike!™’s unprompted revelation of a thirteen-year-old DUI actually makes tactical sense if the strategy is to reinforce his campaign’s primary frame… a frame that at least some in the media have swallowed hook, line and sinker. Writing in Saturday’s Seattle P-I, columnist Robert Jamieson congratulated Mike!™ for his “courage” and “candor.” “He showed he’s human,” Jamieson wrote, by comparison implying that Sen. Cantwell is, well… not.
McGavick has just shown us that he isn’t clinical, rigidly guarded and remote — labels that have dogged Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Democratic incumbent he hopes to beat.
Notably absent from Jamieson’s column was any discussion of where the two candidates actually stand on “the issues and problems that face our country and our families” — exactly the kind of empty discourse the civility frame encourages, for it intentionally diverts our focus away from substance and onto style. Which of course, works in Mike!™’s favor, because he is on the losing side of almost every single issue of importance to Washington voters.
Think about it. Which candidate is really campaigning on the issues? Compare the two candidates’ television and radio ads, and which candidate has made the stronger effort to educate voters about their legislative priorities?
We all know that Sen. Cantwell is an environmental leader, a fierce opponent of drilling in ANWR and of increasing supertanker traffic in the Puget Sound. We know that Sen. Cantwell is perhaps the Senate’s most passionately wonkish leader on energy issues, a champion of alternative energy technologies and of higher CAFE standards, and a victorious defender of Snohomish County rate-payers against the extortionist energy contracts signed at the height of Enron’s unprecedented corporate fraud. We know that Sen. Cantwell staunchly supports reproductive rights and a living minimum wage, and believes the Republican controlled Congress has abdicated it’s obligation to provide necessary oversight of the executive branch.
And even though she was at first reluctant to talk specifics about her evolving position on the war in Iraq, she has been incontrovertibly clear that she believes it is now time to start bringing the troops home, and that she absolutely opposes the establishment of permanent US bases in Iraq.
And what do we know about Mike!™? Um… we know that he wants to bring “civility” back to the US Senate.
Really. Think about it. If elected, what will be Mike!™’s legislative priorities? He hasn’t told us.
Sure, if pushed and prodded you can sometimes torture an answer out of him. He’s for drilling in ANWR, and mostly opposed to abortion. He opposes the estate tax, but is for slashing the minimum wage for millions of tip earners. And he not only opposes a ban on permanent military bases in Iraq, he suggests that it’s inappropriate to even debate the war while our troops are still in harms way.
But he’s not running on any of this. He’s running on being civil. He’s running on being human. He’s running on being candid and courageous.
He’s running on character.
Last night on my radio show I asked the Seattle Times‘ David Postman if he thought Democrats are overly guilty of attacking Mike!™’s character, and he answered that for the most part, no. I also asked him whether character is a relevant issue in a political campaign, and of course he said yes.
This morning the Times editorial board echoed their senior political reporter, arguing that “honesty, integrity and character matter“:
McGavick has never voted on anything. His record is thin. Character matters haunted him. The public has a legitimate need to know about these.
And I’d argue that Mike!™’s character is especially relevant in light of the fact that he chose to make it the central theme of his campaign. Not that I can argue with his strategy.
The fact is, if voters elected representatives solely on the issues, the Democrats would hold a comfortable majority in both houses. But they don’t. We elect people, not issues, and the Republicans have simply done a better job electing their people than the Dems have.
Mike!™ knows this, and so in the midst of a political backlash that threatens to produce a huge Democratic wave, and running against an incumbent who wins hands down on almost every major issue, Mike!™ has chosen to run as simply gosh-darn more likable than that “cold,” “remote” Maria Cantwell. He’d surely lose a truly issue-oriented campaign, and so unable to run on the issues, he has chosen to run around them.
So central is the civility frame to Mike!™’s campaign, that even a potentially damaging revelation about his own human frailty was strategically (and successfully) played to call into question the humanity of his opponent.
So the next time Mike!™ rails against personal character attacks, try this little exercise: don’t think of an elephant.
I bet you can’t.