We in northern Mississippi’s 1st congressional district, a district that had previously seen almost no competition while Roger Wicker held the seat, have been treated to a rarity: a lively political campaign, replete with spirited debate and prime-time commercials.
By all accounts, incumbent democrat Travis Childers is about to lose his seat in the House to republican Alan Nunnelee. Up front, I’d like to say, I couldn’t care less. I view congress as nothing more than a millionire’s club serving its own interest, lining the pockets of its members, screwing the rest of us while listening to the voiceless, yet thunderous siren's call of cash (which, we all know by now, as per Supreme Court verdict, is actually speech). But that is an article for another time. Today, I am interested in the political rhetoric.
One has to marvel at the well-crafted rhetorical strategies of the GOP. Clearly, Nunelee has been coached by the party’s spinmeisters, the most notable being Frank Lutz, and indeed, if I know Lutz’s handiwork, and I think I do, his fingerprints are all over the rhetoric of Alan Nunnelee. By contrast, the rhetoric of Childers, if one can even call it that, is what I have come to expect of democrats: weak, middling nonsense.
Nunelee’s rhetorical strategy is simple: Chain Childers to Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is the core message of Nunnelee’s commercials and campaign rhetoric. It is a brilliant tactic in northern Mississippi; it demonstrates a real understanding of the electorate here, which can be summed up in one word: Patriarchal. The father-knows-best mentality of people here permeates the soul of the typical white Mississippian, and it goes a long way toward explaining how the people of north Mississippi, who, by any measure, are some of the poorest, least educated, most oppressed people in the United States, willfully vote for the GOP, the party that is explicity, shamelessly, working against the interests of most Mississippians. In other words, the need for a strong partriarch, a George W. Bush-style decider, is stronger than the impetus to vote for one’s own interests (not that the democrats actually live up to their for-the-working-man/woman platform, but that’s another article).
By tying Childers to Pelosi, Nunnelee ties him to Satan herself. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more frightening to the typical Mississippi voter than a strong woman. Add to that image of strength the fact that Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal who is most likely not afraid of homosexuals, and you have the substance of many a church-going Mississippian’s worst nightmare.
Nunnelee has given us almost no indication that he has any ideas about governance; he’s given us almost nothing about what he hopes to do in Washington. He simply repeats, over and over again, Pelosi, Pelosi, Pelosi. And sadly, that is probably enough to win.
But the most brilliant rhetorical move I’ve seen from Nunnelee, and the one that most clearly reeks of Lutz, was, when asked about his view of the overturning of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the military, Nunnelee replied that the military “should not be used as a social laboratory.”
Brilliant. For one, it associates the judicial rejection of don’t ask, don’t tell as an intellectual experiment, and intellectualism is anathema to the people of the South, people who pride themselves on good old-fashioned common sense. That, in turn, harkens to the disease of liberalism, the too-smart-for-their-own good set, who let their hearts trump their common sense. Of course, common sense is problematic, varies wildly person to person, culture to culture; nevertheless, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, et al. are thought by the typical conservative Mississippian to be sensible men, (which, ironically, is nonsensical) and the “social laboratory” phrase fires that meme. Leave the military alone, you dirty liberals!
Of course, obscured by the rhetoric is complexity and truth, but such is par for the course for republican rhetoric. Long has the military served as a laboratory for a wide range of experiments, social and otherwise, and to pretend that gays do not serve in the military, have not served in the military since its very inception, is just, well, stupid at best and dishonest at worst. Nevertheless, the phrasing is brilliant, designed to stoke the common sense, the paternal instinct, the Big Daddy knows best, of the typical North Mississippian.
Childers does not, and probably cannot, compete with that rhetoric. Instead, he does what democrats do: He lays down. In his latest commercial, he does exactly the opposite of what he should do. Childers, standing against a serenely verdant Mississippi backdrop, says, and I’m paraphrasing: I voted against Pelosi X number of times. I’m an independent.
Do Not Think of a Giraffe!
One has to wonder, what the hell is wrong with the democrats? Why are they so damned slow on the uptake? In that statement, Childers did nothing to distance himself from Pelosi. He did the opposite. He strengthened the association. He mentioned her with his own voice, in his own ad. He made the association Nunnelee insists upon to be absolutely true: Childers = Pelosi.
Further, he proclaims himself an independent. Never once in the ad does he mention he’s a democrat, committed to a platform for the working man and woman of Mississippi. Instead, he refuses to acknowledge his own party. That is nothing more than an admission of weakness, of shame, of confusion. Mississippians will see him as weak and middling.
What should he have done? One would think the democrats would have figured it out by now: He should have portrayed strength. He should have said on camera something like:
Yes, I’m a democrat, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be a member of the party that gives the working man and woman a voice in our government. I do not work for fat cats. I work for you, and if you vote for me, I will go back to Washington and continue to work hard for you, the same way you work hard to provide for your family.
He should have embodied strength and common sense, painted Nunnelee as a pawn of the rich. Mississippians would respond to that. The GOP is shameless in its desire to screw the working man and woman of this country, and I’m not sure the democrats are much better, but the democrats have the tradition, the platform, to win the majority of votes in almost any election and to make the GOP a perpetual minority party because, after all, it is. It unabashedly represents the wealthy elites.
Until the democrats figure out how to use rhetoric, they will continue to be seen as the part of the weak, the soft, the intellectuals, far removed from the work-a-day folks in small-town America. Those small-town folks will continue to vote against their own interests.UPDATE: Nunnelee's most recent ad adds President Obama to the Pelosi/Childers connection. I'm not sure which is scarier to the typical white Mississippian, a smart woman, or a smart black (well, half black) man.