Duds and Demons: Which Attacks Work, Which Don’t & Why, Part One
For the first time in my blogging career, I am changing names to protect the innocent. And by innocent, it goes without saying, I mean guilty. (I am also evading self-Googlers — Fran Wilde, I’m looking at you). To help readers, I will place an asterisk next to any piece of information that has been altered. Beyond that, I will leave it to the reader’s imagination.
The year was 1998* and I was helping out on the campaign of Dan Parker* in the middle suburban seat of Pineleigh* in Melbourne’s northwest*.
The incumbent Liberal (which means conservative in Australia, true story) was a talented* man* by the name Bruce MacHill*. The swing required to unseat MacHill* was around 4 percent from my hazy recollection. In the wider context of the ’98 election*, Pineleigh* was both a must-win and bloody-hard-to-win seat for Labor. Anyway, I was flicking through MacHill’s* files at the Parliamentary Library one lazy afternoon when I stumbled upon a report from an official overseas trip he* had taken during the previous term. Accompanied by his wife*, MacHill* had embarked on a whirlwind tour of Rome, Paris, LA and the like, reporting breathlessly on each location as if he* were writing for Lonely Planet’s Junkets edition. No doubt MacHill’s trip took in a couple of official meetings to provide some skimpy justification for this stupendous rort, but MacHill* was too dumb or entitled to bother mentioning them beyond a perfunctory sentence or two.
I sat in the library frowning, not at all punching the air*, thinking to to myself “I can’t possibly use this. This isn’t gold”*.
A few hours later, I had produced a three panel leaflet made up simply of photos of the cities where MacGill* and his wife* had gallivanted, along with direct excerpts from the Parliamentary report itself. The tagline read simply:
Hey MacHill! Pay your own travel bill!
A day or so later, the leaflet had found its way into the letterboxes of Pineleigh, and MacHill’s outdoor signs were plastered with stickers that similarly requested that he take care of his own holiday expenses in future.
A week or so later, MacHill* was bleating at election night TV cameras that his much-worse-than-expected loss was the result of dirty tricks and Labor Party hacks.
I had no idea about what or whom he spoke*.
A current flap in the US midterm election campaign has brought this old war story back to life. Pundits in the US are currently in a tizzy over the Democrats’ decision to target the US Chamber of Commerce over using foreign money to fund attack ads. Obama spoke at length on the topic at the Philadelphia rally I attended on the weekend, and the issue was debated endlessly on the Sunday talkshows, including by the President’s chief strategist and grumpybum-in-chief, David Axelrod.
It is inevitable that the political gabbery in the US, who all live and work within a few blocks of each other, tend of coalesce around a singular point of view. In the case of the Chamber and foreign donors story, it has taken the form of self flagellation. Let me sum it up for you:
This is a non-story out there in real America, where real Americans live, work and raise their real American families. This is a process story from inside the beltway that only assholes like us give a damn about. Honest, decent folk don’t care about these inside-baseball stories. Obama and the Democrats have dropped the ball on this one. They should be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs.
Right, left or centre, this is the overwhelming consensus among talking heads of this latest Democratic campaign ploy.
To quote Colonel Sherman T Potter, “Horse Hockey!”
Sure, the pundit assessment seems like a clever argument – and, in fact, it has the benefit of often being true. The media and political elite often misread what interests the public in favour of what interests them, a sizable gulf. Take the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson/Niger uranium/Scooter Libby story. While this intriguing DC scandal is such that it warrants a movie treatment (starring Sean Penn and Noami Watts), it is unlikely to have shifted a single vote among punters in the great American midriff.
But the same cannot be said of the foreign donors story and this brings me full loop back to MacHill and his travel bill.
The Chamber of Commerce taking money from foreign corporations and using that money to try and influence the election is precisely the kind of inside-story that resonates beyond the elites for the same reasons MacHill’s silly parliamentary travel report did:
- It fits and amplifies an existing negative preconception among voters, i.e. MP’s are corrupt nest-featherers and travel rorters, and the perfidious business lobby favours foreigners and destroys US jobs.
- It aligns with existing narratives: MP travel rorts had dominated the headlines in Australia in the late nineties, and the political influence of the super-rich has been in the spotlight since the US Supreme opened the floodgates with the Citizens United ruling.
- It is gettable in a breath or less. MP rorts travel. Foreigners Corrupt Elections. Easy, compelling, viral.
The Chamber of Commerce yarn works precisely because, to American voters, it is about jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs lost to outsourcing and sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. It is not much of a leap for a jittery populace to make the connection Obama wants them to make.