The revelation that Sarah Palin’s image consultants have spent over $150,000 on her new wardrobe has come as a shock to many hard-pressed voters. In recessionary times, this is a huge extravagance. The creation and extension of political image is a constant in politics around the world; Ms Palin’s expenditure exemplifies how dominant this projection is in the great game that is democratic politics. If McCain-Palin somehow manage to pull back the Dem’s lead and win, then this will be just another, albeit scandalous, campaign detail. Should the GOP, as looks likely, end up being slaughtered in the General Election, it will prove that image-makers can only work with what’s already there; you can’t go against the grain by claiming to be ‘Everywoman’ but shop at Hermes and DKNY.
US presidential elections, usually coming down to a run off between two individuals, have seen candidates rely on image to give them the edge. Right back to the Founding Fathers, the US has had a strain of individualism which has been emphasised in electoral contests as each runner has tried to portray distinctive characteristics. Kennedy stood for youth and change; Nixon was famously given a better reception by radio listeners than TV viewers – Kennedy and his media handlers carried off the brilliant presentation of a young man, vibrant and virile (despite Kennedy permanently wearing a back brace and being injected with an unknown combination of medicines on a daily basis) against an easily typecast ‘Tricky Dicky’.
Tony Blair and New Labour are the classic case study of presentational magic. Blair’s team referred to Labour’s makeover as ‘The Project’ – it was fighting the previously media-savvy Tories on their own ground; again, youth and change were dominant motifs as were the notions of trust and responsibility. The ultimate trick that New Labour spin doctors pulled off was to make voters believe ‘what you see is what you get’ – there’s no better candidate than the one that radiates sincerity – no matter how manufactured that quality is.
Obama’s campaign has been brilliant from the point of view of image projection. Where McCain looked unsure, Obama looked confident. Where McCain-Palin attacks looked clumsy, Obama surrogates wielded the knife with perfect ruthlessness. Where the older man seemed out of touch, the younger man never ceased to exploit this. Whatever happens on election night, the Obama campaign has already surpassed Clinton ‘92 and ‘96 in terms of political professionalism. He has taken the high road and let others take the low road – never being seen to sling the mud. Obama has been brilliant in engendering a sense of purpose and optimism in his supporters; they may not know everything he stands for but they’ll follow him wherever he needs to go. One of the key issues in leadership is trust; Obama-Biden have this in abundance according to polling.
For once the phrase historic is not hyperbole; 2008 will go down as an era-defining election. The winners and losers will look to where it all went right and wrong and image will be a key consideration in their review of tactics and strategy. So far, there’s been a clear victor in these stakes.
Recent financial turmoil has prompted apocalyptic headlines round the globe. Fear, then panic gripped the markets as confidence collapsed on the trading floors in New York, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo. The immediate cause of the ‘credit crunch’, the screeching halt of inter-bank lending, was grounded in the reality of derivatives and securitisation devices turning out to be junk or ‘toxic’. While the political right wing and former Masters of the Universe have seen government bail-outs as an unwelcome temporary intervention in free market dynamics, us mortals are aware that now is a golden opportunity to put the interests of Main Street before Wall Street. We are the masters now.
Regulation, democratic accountability and corporate responsibility are the minimum expectations following the taxpayer rescue of the banking sector. The derivatives market needs to become transparent; no longer can financial empires be built on sub-prime debt. The message to financiers is that there are no more enormous bonuses available off the backs of the poor. If you want to be bailed out by the average schmo, then you’re going to have to accept some new rules. We don’t care if you don’t like them or threaten flight capital again; your bluff will be called.
Inflation can no longer be the sole concern for the ECB or Federal Reserve. If this recession follows previous periods of economic decline, unemployment will soar and social discontent will rise. If needs be, the Central Banks should be brought under more political control; ‘independence’ did nothing to curb reckless market enthusiasm. Banks need to focus on social stability; inflation is only one target in their purview.
The IMF needs root and branch reform. Infiltrated by a Chicago School cult, the Fund lacks all credibility when it lectures its’ members on fiscal discipline. Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz views the IMF as an impediment to economic growth; it needs to be subject to democratic control and then given the role and authority to formulate global intervention and planning where appropriate. The age of Milton Friedman is gone; there are few mourners.
The Tobin tax, a charge of between .1% and .25% of each short-term currency transaction should be introduced. A Bretton Woods for the 21st Century is urgently needed and such an agreement should regulate share-trading activity and restrict speculative trading. The Washington Consensus won’t cut it any more.
The ending of tax havens is another nettle that world governments need to grasp; Lichtenstein, Monaco and the Caymens should be threatened with anti-laundering penalties and international isolation if they continue to flout and subvert world financial and equitable taxation reform. This is the time to do it; there’s a fear and loathing of these bottom feeders siphoning off much needed revenue from the rest of the world and politicians have public support for whatever action they deem necessary.
It’s taken a huge financial crisis, global recession and the strong possibility of depression for governments to finally wake up and realise that they are our elected representatives. Banks and the financial sector are just one part of the world economy. Unfortunately, its taken a disaster of epic proportions before democratic institutions stood up and said ‘Enough!’.
Post the second head-to-head debate last evening, several observations can be made. Firstly McCain is in big trouble and he knows it. Secondly, Obama is looking like a winner. And thirdly, in Shakespeare’s lines for Brutus, ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’; Obama is surfing that tide looking back at McCain struggling to wade through the sand.
America’s economy is in dire straits. The US faces years of slow decline brought on by a combination of laissez-faire economics (the confusion of Friedmanite ideology with political reality, Wall-Street greed, the gutting of regulators) and lack of leadership from the White House. Forget about the ‘American Dream’; the credit boom’s been financed on debt that can’t be repaid. Financial institutions, the ethos of shareholder primacy and the assumption that the market will provide have been exposed as fragile concoctions. Obama, if elected, can take the result as a clear mandate; the voters will have stated that they want more of the ‘New Deal’ and less of the ‘Trickledown’. History is with the Democrats.
McCain’s personality is looking more suspect. His testiness is no longer quirky, it’s off-putting. His contempt for Obama looks like a piqued sense of entitlement. A presidential candidate should be personally ambitious but not predominantly so. The angrier McCain gets, the more Obama gains votes. This generational battle has the a curious role-reversal in play; the cooler head of the younger man contrasts with the arrogance of old age. McCain can’t change this; he is who he is, and that, sadly for the GOP, is part of his campaign failure.
McCain’s jabs at Obama’s lack of experience aren’t landing either; if your ideas aren’t making an impact, if you look embittered and you’re unable to explain why being older makes you wiser, then criticising your opponent for being younger becomes tiresome. Hilary Clinton already tried it and didn’t succeed; why should McCain be any different? Joe Biden’s looking like a very shrewd choice of VP pick indeed for Obama – charges of inexperience against the younger man seem almost totally ineffective now.
Obama has shown that he won’t be ‘swiftboated’. ‘Say I hung around with terrorists, I’ll bring up your corporate felon friendships, say I want to raise taxes, I’ll show how you rolled over for Corparate Queens; surrogate me and I’ll surrogate you. Have Ms Palin come at me, I’ll pour a bucket of dirt over her she’ll never climb out of’. David Ploufee has learnt the lesson from 2000 and 2004; ‘we’re not going to sit back and take it like we did before’. If McCain goes nuclear in the final debate, Obama will probably be ready and it won’t be pretty.
McCain’s best hope now would appear to be a ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario – Iran shoots down a US transporter plane, North Korea does something incredibly stupid or he really, really does know how to catch Bin Laden in the next three weeks. Otherwise when even Charles Krauthammer is betting on an Obama victory, he must know the game is up.