I’ve decided to chalk up all the political verbal hijinks of late to a mass outbreak of Spring Fever. Nothing else can explain politicians’ recent reluctance to stay on message.
There’s additional fall-out from McCain’s little tune—MoveOn.org has created a commercial about the incident to run in New Hampshire and Iowa. The ad characterizes McCain as reckless and states this is not a good quality in a president. Personally, I am a little more concerned about his lack of common sense.
McCain is defending himself by characterizing his speech as a casual chat between him and some old friends, not a policy statement. He believes everyone should lighten up and that what he did was not insensitive.
While, technically, it wasn’t a policy statement and, technically, he hasn’t announced his candidacy for President yet, he needs to realize that, especially these days, every word and movement will be recorded and analyzed ad infinitum. He has to also consider context—to most people if it looks like a stump speech, and sounds like a stump speech, it probably is a stump speech. He wasn’t sitting around his rec room with some buddies drinking a beer—he was making a public appearance. It had to cross his mind that such a flip move would ruffle some feathers. Who knows? Maybe he was counting on it to get some press. His numbers are sliding, but I don’t think this is the way to make them move up (although it seems that his outburst is popular among conservative bloggers).
If McCain wants to make a serious run for the presidency, he needs to play the game. It may be inauthentic, but the public has been conditioned as to what to expect from the candidate. They’re not going to accept someone who operates outside this norm. I also think it is too easy for him to hide behind his “straight-talk” persona. It seems like he thinks that he can say whatever he wants, and then brush it aside by claiming he’s just speaking to people in the heat of the moment.
The other thing that irks me is his claim that what he said was not insensitive. I strongly disagree. I am sure the families and friends of the military men and women in Iraq do not enjoy hearing this man speak so glibly about attacking another country, endangering the lives of their loved ones when they are called up yet again to fight a difficult battle.
In addition to McCain, President Bush got into the act today speaking off the cuff about the rug in the oval office, history’s perception of George Washington and the meaninglessness of polls. He didn’t say anything offensive or, in fact, too out-there. It was just odd to see an unplanned, unscripted moment.
Which brings us back to the beginning. The reason for the growing game of “gotcha” with politicians is simple: modern technology. Fifteen, 20 years ago we simply didn’t see it—it wasn’t reported on and, frankly, people really didn’t care. We didn’t have the technology available to record every movement, distribute the footage widely, and view others’ material as well. Now, we have the internet and You Tube.
Sound bites and message points didn’t come into vogue until the Reagan administration and the birth of the gaping void that is the 24-hour news cycle. It’s common knowledge—channels like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News need content (which draws viewers, who bring in the advertising cash). They’ll use whatever they can get their hands on, creating news where there is none. These two factors alone create a world where we are all on stage 24/7 and there is no room for miscalculation.
As much as I hate to admit it, these faux pas are just politicians being human. We’d all be hard-pressed to stay on-message, all the time. But with today’s environment, politicians need to be perfect, all the time. I don’t think they need to become robotic generators of sound bites, but a little more care and thought behind their words would be nice.