Inside the Political Process: Framing the Debate

This is the third in a series of posts by politico Jim Emery, who worked in the Communications office of the Ashwin Madia campaign in 2008. With a new congressional campaign underway, Jim’s recollections and analyses are timely.
I was aware of the framing of the debate, day-to-day, as it occurred, and so was everyone else who worked on the Madia campaign, thanks to Google. Campaign workers and anyone else interested in anything at all, for that matter, can get a daily update from Google by using the Google Alerts feature. Place “Ashwin Madia” or “Erik Paulsen” inside a set of quotation marks, give Google your email, and you get sent a daily update of every website that mentions the name. No investigation of the daily tone of the campaign is necessary, since all the links involving the candidates arrive in your mailbox every morning.

It seems like a simple and obvious application for the web’s most successful brand-named search engine, but its implications are dramatic. The Madia campaign had a subscription to the local daily newspaper, but really, it was a wasteful and anachronistic expenditure. Every day I would pick the Star Tribune up off the sidewalk in front of the office door and pitch it into the paper recycling bin beside the office copier. It was already well after 7 a.m., and to anyone who had checked their email since dinner the evening before, whatever was in the morning daily was old news.

The technology available to the campaigns constantly improves with new applications that make communications faster and cheaper. Tracker footage gets posted to YouTube within minutes of an event, and campaigns have begun to produce viral video ads specifically for the site. It’s much less expensive than TV, simpler get the content to the target audience, and of course, faster. Blogs with relevant stories feature updated postings, minute-to-minute, that you can check from your Blackberry. All of it happens at digital speed, and campaigns do what they can to keep up.

And you have to keep up, and use the available technology at least as well as your opponent, or give away an advantage. The idea is to make use of these resources for the campaign, but you start to wonder if, in some perverse way, it’s become the other way around, and the resource is using the campaign. Are candidates truly building a campaign online, or are they just not giving ground, worried that the opponent will come to dominate the medium, as Republicans have taken over the talk-radio airwaves and the Obama campaign claimed ownership of text-message communication? If daily newspapers don’t get stories to us fast enough anymore, how far does this go? Will the 2010 midterm election feature frazzled campaign staffs obsessively checking for new scandal updates on Twitter? Will campaigns turn the cameras on themselves to defend against trackers taking remarks out of context? There is not a clear answer, but you have to wonder how much video footage of candidates is floating around YouTube, every tracker looking for the next macaca moment.22 How many political blogs would have given up on posting into the unread void of cyberspace without candidate supporters attending to their day-to-day postings? We don’t know, and won’t, because no campaign can afford an experiment in conceding the electronic battlefield. Doing so would render the November election a referendum on whatever issues your opponent selects, on terms defined by the other campaign.

A key moment in the campaign?

On September 30, the Erik Paulsen campaign called a press conference in which Senator Geoff Michel, a Republican member of the Minnesota Senate, was the only speaker. Press conferences exist to get attention for the candidate, and are, as a rule, heavily promoted by campaigns. Attention from mainstream news sources is desired, and TV news coverage is the Holy Grail. It was odd, then, that Erik Paulsen, himself, did not appear at all on that day. For a press conference, the atmosphere was markedly low-key.

Senator Michel, as it turned out, was there to point out the differences between Erik Paulsen and Ashwin Madia. “Raising a family in the district, sending your kids to the public school, owning a home, working in the Third District, paying property taxes in the Third District. Erik Paulsen has done all these things,” the Senator told us, “and Ashwin Madia has not.” “I don’t want to use the word ‘carpetbagger,’” Michel went on to say, though of course he just had. Madia is a 30-year-old bachelor who rents an apartment. Representative Ramstad, who had served the district as a Republican congressman for nine terms and had endorsed Paulsen, also had no children, but that was hardly the point.

The Paulsen campaign, taking care to speak through their surrogate, made the point on that day that Minnesota’s Third Congressional District is made up of, and should be represented by, a certain type of person. The district is suburban and its residents are, for the most part, white. Ashwin Madia, the dark-skinned son of Indian immigrants who had left the district to be educated in New York City, was not these things. Erik Paulsen, by contrast, very much was, as Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey later, explained, noting that, “Erik Paulsen … really fits the 3rd District so well, as one of them.”

It was an old school campaign play, updated. The Paulsen campaign did not invent the tactic of pointing out the otherness of a political opponent as a negative. Dividing the electorate between us and them has been one of the defining tactics of American politics since World War II. The acknowledged master of the tactic was Richard Nixon, whose campaign slogan for his first successful congressional run was, “One of Us.” Paulsen, like Nixon before him, was attempting to tap into the way suburban homeowners in his district see themselves.

William Schneider examined the suburban ethic in a 1992 Atlantic Monthly article, noting, “The prevailing life-style in all these places remains distinctively suburban, meaning home-owning, homogeneous, and largely white.” Schneider interviewed Dan Walters, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, who further explained, “The theory…is I bought this house. It’s mine. This is my little preserve.” In the suburban preserve, as Senator Michel seemed to suggest, people are like you. They are from the neighborhood, and they stay there. Their family looks like yours, their job is similar, and they do not look like their parents came from another part of the world. The Paulsen campaign was tapping into the same impulse then-Vice President Nixon had in 1952 when he gave his infamous “Checkers” speech, as Rick Perlstein notes in his book on Nixon’s lasting political legacy.

To a new suburban middle class that was tempting itself into Republicanism, admiring Richard Nixon was becoming part and parcel of a political identity based on seeing through the pretensions of the cosmopolitan liberals…The America over whose direction they struggled for the next fifty years, whose meaning they continue to contest.

Senator Michel, on that day, made the case that it should be obvious who we are and just as obvious that Ashwin Madia is something else altogether. Covert racism is no small part of this tactic. Dan Carter, in his book on the 1968 George Wallace campaign tips his hat to Nixon’s (and later Ronald Reagan’s) mastery of subtle race-baiting.

Nixon had taped a television commercial attacking the decline of “law and order” in American cities…Nixon did not have to make the racial connection any more than would Ronald Reagan when he began one of his famous discourses on welfare queens using food stamps to buy porterhouse steaks.

There are votes to be had by distinguishing yourself from your opponent in this way, but it needs to be done with great care. A risk is run that you will offend the public, losing more votes than you gain. Erik Paulsen wanted his suburban pedigree on his candidate resume, but only to be read by the people who would appreciate it. The strategy was to call attention to it, but not too much attention. Have it said, but not by the candidate. Get some news coverage, but not too much. If the press conference stays off the TV, but shows up in the online publications and the blogs, the right people will see it and internalize it. Those people are already voting for you, but now they have a clearer picture of why, an identity that they might pass along to their social groups. Anyone who finds it and takes offense wasn’t going to vote for you anyway.

Ashwin Madia called a press conference the following day, essentially asking his opponent to campaign by discussing the issues. Senator Michel and Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Carey were present, though again, not Representative Paulsen. Each of them, in turn, took the microphone after Madia left the room, and tried to clarify, or perhaps distance, the remarks of the previous day, ensuring that Paulsen was not portrayed as an overt racist. Carey began, pointing out that, “From a demographic standpoint, Erik Paulsen fits the district very well.” Senator Michel spoke further about Mr. Madia’s fit for the district, using the phrase, “When you look at the candidate…” Then, when asked by reporters about the racism implied in the words they chose, both Republicans representing the Paulsen campaign denied using them.

As the questions from reporters became somewhat hostile, Carey and Michel became visibly agitated, apparently not having expected a backlash from reporters concerning what appeared to be underhanded tactics. Michel began to phrase more carefully, now explaining, “If you look at the candidate’s resume…,” and Carey became almost incoherent, rambling something about what a good soccer coach Ashwin Madia would, indeed, make, as he was clearly in good physical condition.

It was a strange moment. The Paulsen camp seemed genuine, simply expressing what, to them, was their candidate’s fitness for public service and not possessing the self-awareness for it to occur to them that their comments might be offensive, until they had already made them. They were just stating the obvious–a certain kind of person lives here, and Ashwin Madia is not our kind. It was, again, more than a little Nixonian, as Perlstein, examining Nixon’s definition of the “silent majority,” recalls.

Nixon made political capital of a certain experience of humiliation: the humiliation of having to defend values that seemed to you self-evident, then finding you had no words to defend them, precisely because they seemed so self-evident.

Given the energy the campaign put into the two days of press conferences, Erik Paulsen’s absence continued to confound, though in retrospect it seems like a shrewd decision.

The controversy was, in the end, largely ignored by the mainstream press, as was, it would seem, its intent. Minnesota Public Radio’s politics blog covered both days of conferences, and the Minnesota Independent posted the videos. Minnesota Democrats Exposed was present and did the obligatory blog postings. The Paulsen campaign likely made their case successfully, to exactly the audience with whom it would resonate.

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