Thursday, August 23, 2007

Proxy Wars

We’re not talking about corporate takeovers here. The proxy wars I’m referring to are the remote controlled comments of presidential candidates’ clones. The most recent twist in this long-standing political tradition is the unleashing of the wives.

Unfortunately mud-slinging, fault-finding, scandal-disclosing and simple disparagement of the opposition has become the stock methodology of campaigning. Ask a hundred voters if they like negative campaigns and the preponderant majority will tell you that is the most distasteful aspect of American politics. Yet, it is undeniable that the negative gets the accentuation in contravention of the old Johnny Mercer song. Even the Eagles got it right in pointing out that we like “Dirty Laundry.”

The critical catch is that you’ve got to have someone deniable doing the dirty work. That’s how we wind up with “former National Guard Officers” suddenly recalling records from thirty years ago to allege draft dodging or combat avoidance. It’s how we read of former professors who recall a sub-par student performance. It is how an unaffiliated researcher or blogger begins to beat the drum about some miscreant running for office. It’s the greater-than-arm’s-length voice crying in the wilderness and it had better not be the candidate or the candidate’s organization. There has got to be deniability. No one wants to vote for a mud-slinging officer-seeker. We all want to vote on the issues and the qualifications, not the sordidness. We also like to watch slo-motion train wrecks.

We’ve got an exciting new twist unfolding in this hyper-length horserace that is the current presidential campaign. Now it is the era of the liberated, self-assured, confident, intelligent, independent, (complimentary adjectives begin to pile up at this point), woman who coincidentally is the spouse of the candidate. Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt was such a woman, but Bess Truman wasn’t nor was Mamie Eisenhower. While Jackie Kennedy might have made the first lady position into a popular news focus, it wasn’t typically a political statement that drove the attention but one of fashion, style or the arts.

Probably we can attribute development of the strong-willed, almost uncontrollable-in-speaking-her-mind model of presidential spouse to Hillary Clinton. How appropriate then that the new wave of proxies is aiming quite often at Ms Clinton herself.

The new, self-assured spouse is first profiled by the media to create stature and credibility. We got an examination of Elizabeth Edwards when John was VP candidate with John Kerry. Background was established and an aura of sympathy was brushed in when it was disclosed that she was suffering from cancer. She becomes a perfect proxy now. She’s got credibility because she’s been through a national campaign. She’s been an insider and she’s her own woman supporting her brilliant trial lawyer/millionaire/dedicated public servant husband. She can speak with authority. She’s got a platform. The media are listening.

And, with the recurrence of her cancer, she’s not subject to brutal counter-attack. One does not kick at the disabled just because they’ve insulted, accused or libeled you. It simply isn’t done by civilized folks. She becomes an invulnerable voice which will be heard and cannot be effectively countered. Along with it comes deniability from the candidate who simply acknowledges that she has a right to say what she thinks. Take that Ann Coulter!

This week it was Michelle Obama. What a perfect proxy! She’s attractive (remember, Joe Biden likes Obama because he’s “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy…” Michelle is intelligent and successful in her own right. Barak even admits that she is smarter and he defers lovingly. She is the sort of strong woman who will be an asset to any President and a role-model to millions of young women of any ethnicity. Therefore, she can speak with authority and impunity. She has a platform. The media listen. And the candidate can assert deniability.

Through it all, we the American electorate suffer. We’ve been placed at arm’s length from accountability of our candidates while they use immune proxies to cast the stones of the campaign. The proxy speaks and then the talking heads parse the statements of the proxy providing first an opportunity for us to nod in agreement at what the proxy pointed out, then a chance for the candidate to distance from the statement, and inevitably a flood of press to put the candidate at the top of the news hour again.

What will be next? Presidential candidate spouse debates? During this first ever Presidential election through media coronation, we might be watching the final demise of the democratic experience of the Founding Fathers. Reality TV becomes the process of government rather than informed electoral decision.