I’m Sure I’m Right, and You’re an Idiot

Reading a New Yorker story (Dec. 10) on New York Governor Eliot Spitzer reminds me that the political right has no patent on sanctimonious certitude. And certitude and imperiousness don’t draw people to you or your point of view.

It’s a tough balance to strike, being a passionate believer and pushing for what you think is right without pushing away people who don’t agree with every word you say — we talk about that on this blog a lot. Sounds like Spitzer hasn’t found that balance. Although he won 69% of the vote when elected a year ago, a recent poll showed only 25% of New Yorkers would vote for him today. And he’s at loggerheads with the New York legislature.

As a communicator, he apparently uses a jackhammer. Spitzer had road tested the idea of giving illegal immigrants drivers licenses during his campaign and hadn’t heard much resistance. When, as governor, Spitzer proposed it as policy, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to the New Yorker, “raised questions about the plan, citing worries that it would diminish a license’s value. In a characteristic display of excessive rhetorical aggression, Spitzer responded, ‘He is wrong at every level — dead wrong, factually wrong, legally wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong.'”

OK, then, Eliot, you just go off to your corner of the playground, I’m done playing with you.

Why not say, “I’m happy to listen to the mayor’s concerns. Here’s why I think this is good policy for all of us…”

Spitzer is a true Progressive, fighting the concentration of selfish power on behalf of the individual. I hate to see him lose his effectiveness because he’s so damned sure of himself and treats others like lower beings.

John Edwards is becoming increasingly strong and angry in his challenge of excessive corporate power, but I don’t hear from him the tone of “I know everything and if you don’t agree with me you’re an idiot and an ethical leper.” Edwards is sure of himself, but not closed. “Without vigilance and humility, righteousness can become self-righteousness,” Spitzer said of his own communication style in August. He’s still got a lot to learn.

We’ve had too many presidents who aren’t open to dissent or ideas other than theirs — LBJ on Vietnam, George W on everything. I’m listening for leaders who have strong convictions but can also listen and learn.

–Bruce Benidt

Polls Shed No Light On Oprah Effect

Few things in the persuasion business are more misused than polls. Today’s example from the political world: the Zogby polling purporting to show that Oprah Winfrey’s support for presidential candidate Barack Obama is making no difference.

I have no idea how Winfrey impacts Obama. But I do know asking people a “less likely/more likely” poll question sheds absolutely no light on the matter.

Here’s why. People don’t like to admit that they are heavily influenced by outside forces, particularly forces regarded as superficial in society, such as celebrities. They don’t admit it to pollsters, because they don’t admit it to themselves. They wear Nike because they made their own considered choice, not because they want to be like Nike endorsers.

If you ask people whether they are more or less likely to buy a product after seeing an ad, people will vehemently deny the ad influences them. I’ve seen it on issue-after-issue and product-after-product. To do otherwise would be to admit that you are a shallow, powerless automaton.

But, the soda, beer and cigarette companies that advertise the most, sell the most. Not a coincidence.

Understand, it’s not that we are lying to pollsters. It’s that we don’t understand how outside influences shape our thinking in the backs of our brains. Just like people don’t see a Coke ad and immediately say “oh my gosh, that ad will make me purchase Coke,” people don’t see Oprah promoting Obama and immediately say “that endorsement will make me vote for Obama.” To do so would be to admit powerlessness, something we all are reluctant to do. And to do so would be to exhibit more self awareness than we possess.

But the information from the Coke ads gets filed away in the brain and bounces around in ways we don’t understand, while week-after-week we find ourselves quite unconsciously reaching for Coke on the shelf instead of the lightly advertised champion of blind taste tests, RC Cola.

Likewise the endorsement of Obama by one of the most popular and admired people in the world is bouncing around in Americans heads in ways we don’t really understand. I don’t know how Americans are going to process that information. But my point is that asking a more likely/less likely question in a poll is about the most superficial way to gauge that that I can imagine.

Full Disclosure: I support Obama, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, wear the same teddy bear print Karen Neuberger pajamas that Oprah does.

– Loveland

No Balls v. No Strategy

In an appearance on behalf of Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken, Hollywood comedic genius Larry David recently recently accused Senator Norm Coleman of having “no balls.” It proved a popular line among the committed liberals in attendance, but it presumably will not go over as well in less partisan and cheeky corners of Minnesota.

While the earnest folks at http://www.factcheck.org investigate the veracity of David’s claim, there is a serious communications issue to ponder. Franken’s strategists should consider the message-oriented pros and con of bringing Larry David and his ilk into Minnesota.

On the “pro” side, the appearance of an irreverent celeb brings spice and a fundraising draw. I get that. But Franken is hardly deficient in these areas. On the “con” side, Franken IS perceived to be lacking in Senatorial gravitas and Midwestern cultural cred, and standing around with your Hollywood pals hurling sophomoric insults aggravates that problem.

Bottom line: The Franken campaign continues to look as if it’s being managed by Lorne Michaels.

– Loveland

Jesus is Huckabee’s (Political) Savior

We Rowdies had a good snicker a few weeks back over an outrageous piece of video in which a politician being grilled by a reporter refused to answer questions about his record and instead responded, seven times in one short interview, “Do you know Jesus loves you?”

Outrageous, right? Just an oddball backwater politician, right? An anomaly, right?

Wrong. The hottest presidential candidate in the country is using the same dodge masterfully as we blog.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is presently running ads in Iowa questioning former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee about a series of “soft on crime” moves Huckabee allegedly made as Governor of Arkansas. Romney’s charges are demagogic, but he is raising the kind of issues that conservative activists care deeply about, so they might actually slow down the Iowa Huckaboom if they got traction.

With the stakes sky high and the Presidential nomination hanging in the balance, Huckabee’s response to the questioning is: “…what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ…”

That’s it. That’s the gist of the TV ad Huckabee put up in the wake of Romney’s questions.

In this spat, Romney will be portrayed as the crass Scrooge for daring to raise policy issues seventeen days before an election. I can hear the Grinch satire song now: “You’re a mean one, Mr. Mitt!”

But Romney is at least raising a policy issue that Presidents really do struggle with, criminal law and pardons. Citizens always say they want politicians to talk about “the issues” rather than empty platitudes, and that’s what Romney is doing. But, gross rating point-by-gross rating point, Huckabee clings to platitudes, behind the protective robe of Jesus, to avoid talking about his record as Governor.

“…what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ…”

“…what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ…”

“…what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ…”

It’s a savvy move to solidify his religious base and attract campaign weary, Christmas lovin’ Iowans. It very effectively sells him as a likeable guy. Therefore, Reverend Huckster will be lauded in the annals of political advertising history for his Silent Night strumming savoir faire. And it probably will help him win Iowa.

But it’s also every bit as slippery a response as the “do you know Jesus loves you” guy.

– Loveland

Who’s Your Daddy?

Want to understand how Republicans frame themselves with voters to win elections in the post-9/11 environment? Well, come to papa.

Linguist George Lakoff explains that Republicans are very disciplined about framing themselves as “strict fathers” of the national family, the kind of figure you want to protect you in a dangerous neighborhood and stop the children from getting soft and dependent. “Wait until your father comes home!”

Meanwhile the Democrats frame themselves as the nurturing mommies. Voters like that the mama Dems have big hearts and mean well, but worry they overindulge the national family and are too soft to protect us from the cold, cruel world.

Yesterday on Meet the Press, there was an interesting example of how disciplined Republicans are about maintaining this tough guy framing. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was being grilled by host Tim Russert about the hypocrisy of cracking down on undocumented workers while employing such workers to do landscaping around, as the Boston Globe put it, “his pink colonial house.”

Naturally, Romney sprung into action to defend his honor. And what was the first thing out of his mouth? A spirited recitation of his 9-point immigration plan? A description of his work as Governor to deal with the problem? An explanation about how difficult it is in the current environment to determine which workers are “legal?”

No, the strict father sat up tall, pulled his shoulders back and responded, “I have to clear up the most egregious error in that article. It said my house was pink. I would not have a pink house, I assure you.”

Oh daddy!

– Loveland

“I’ll Work Hard blahblahblah”

Hillary Clinton has a new message in Iowa — she’s a hard worker.

Big deal.

She said, rather clumsily, in the last Iowa debate, “Everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change. Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change.” The New York Times said Hillary “has sought to cast herself as a workhorse.”

Big deal.

I don’t want a president who is so disengaged he reads his positions off of note cards, like Reagan. Nor do I want one who hopes the thing is handed to him, like Thompson. But I’m not impressed by hard work. In this country, the Protestant Work Ethic is held up as golden. But hard work ain’t enough. Sen. Clinton worked hard on health care reform, and she still doesn’t get that her secrecy as she gathered opinions was a problem — secrecy leads to a Bush administration that is run by lobbyists. She said in Thursday’s Iowa debate that the problem with her health care effort was that she didn’t have a good enough communications plan. More hard work would have made it better. No, dear, having the right instincts and values would have made it better. Work won’t solve the problem of bad judgment and the inability to admit mistakes.

A workhorse? No thanks. I want a graceful strong steed with a sense of where he’s going and the ability to inspire us to run alongside or want to hop aboard. You don’t “get” change by work or hope or demands. If you’re a catalyst, you spark change to happen around you.

— Benidt

What Did Sid Know, And When Did He Know It?

The depressing coverage of the Mitchell report on steroid use in baseball raises many questions, such as what took one Alan Huber “Bud” Selig Jr. so long to notice the syringes in the trash cans. One question that is apt for this forum: Could and should the media have uncovered this story long before George Mitchell did?

The Mitchell report would have won a Pulitzer if it had been a newspaper exposé. My understanding is that Mitchell didn’t have the power to subpoena. So did he really have that much more ability to uncover the truth than the Fourth Estate?

Unlike George Mitchell, reporters are in clubhouses every day. Did they never notice syringes in the trash, as the Twins employee did? Reporters have hundreds of sources in and around the business of baseball. Did none of those sources have the ability and inclination to help reporters uncover even a fraction of the stories contained in the Mitchell report?

I’m out of my League here. I don’t know this issue well, and I don’t work in sports media relations. But I do wonder whether sports reporters are so caught up in hero worship, relationship protection, statistical spin, and the timely boarding and unboarding of bandwagons that they were asleep at the switch as one of the biggest baseball stories in decades was unfolding all around them.

– Loveland