Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Haunted by his Own Punch-Line

Last January, when it felt as if all of the media were watching (and analyzing to death) what they had decided to label the first serious confrontation between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Nevada primary, Obama made a bold decision for his final move. Addressing voters in Las Vegas, he adopted a genre very familiar to Las Vegas audiences of all stripes, what Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press called "a biting political standup routine." With my own passion for text analysis, I decided that one way to learn about Obama would be to deconstruct his jokes; but it had not occurred to me that one of those jokes might come back to haunt him. This is Pickler's account of the joke I had in mind:

Obama began by recalling a moment in Tuesday night's debate when he and his rivals were asked to name their biggest weakness. Obama answered first, saying he has a messy desk and needs help managing paperwork _ something his opponents have since used to suggest he's not up to managing the country. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his biggest weakness is that he has a powerful response to seeing pain in others, and Clinton said she gets impatient to bring change to America.

"Because I'm an ordinary person, I thought that they meant, `What's your biggest weakness?'" Obama said to laughter from a packed house at Rancho High School. "If I had gone last I would have known what the game was. And then I could have said, `Well, ya know, I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. It's terrible.'"

"Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!" he said.

That punch-line kept echoing in my mind as I worked my way, paragraph by paragraph, through Kevin Connolly's analysis for BBC News of Clinton's speech last night to the Democratic National Convention. Ultimately, the analysis was about how difficult it was to figure out the meaning behind the words of that speech. Much of what Connolly wrote had to do with Clinton's history of saying what has to be said while phrasing her text in such a way as to indicate the presence of a subtext, without necessarily helping others identify just what that subtext is. She is very good at this sort of thing, and it is a talent that can be very good in negotiations. Writing about it in the business world back in 1984, Eric Eisenberg called it "strategic ambiguity."

One way of reading Obama's joke is as ridicule of strategic ambiguity. Playing to a crowd of "jes' plain folks" in Las Vegas (if that is not an oxymoron), he as much as said, "This whole idea of 'strategic ambiguity' is not for folks like you; and it is not for me." Whether or not it helped his final vote count is moot; but it seemed to have escaped most of the media flacks that this kind of man-of-the-people posturing was basically the same rhetorical strategy that was serving George W. Bush so well. Now my guess is that Obama knows and understands strategic ambiguity very well. He probably even knows how to use it, although it may well be that his skill in exercising it has not been stress-tested the way Clinton's skill has.

Thus, Obama may very well be choking on a punch-line that had originally been invoked to win a few votes. If he was not choking on it while Clinton was delivering her speech, then it would have taken little more than a few paragraphs at the end of Connolly's account to bring it back into his craw:

There is nothing she [Clinton] could have said that would have persuaded either Republicans, or Democrats who don't like her, that she was delivering a straightforward appeal on behalf of Obama without a subtext that suited her own agenda.

It somehow sums her up that she now finds herself in a position where, however hard she works for Mr Obama and however many speeches she makes, people will automatically note that if he wins this election and holds the White House for eight years, her presidential ambitions will be finished.

If he loses, she will start the next campaign as favourite to win the Democratic nomination, just as she did this time around.

It doesn't mean she wants a Republican win of course - she is a lifelong Democratic Party worker - it just means that once again everything that's written about Hillary Clinton will be complex and ambiguous.

Very few people know what Mrs Clinton really thinks, and they never say.

The only thing more ironic than this state of affairs is the point that Eisenberg originally tried to make about strategic ambiguity, that it is a powerful tool for defusing the most contentious disagreements. The contest for the Democratic nomination will be remembered as such a "contentious disagreement;" but Clinton could not ply her strategic ambiguity skill to turn the situation in her favor. Perhaps that tells her something about her style: If she could not make the tool work for her to win enough delegate support, could she have made it work in winning support for health care reform or resolving a crisis situation like the one that just erupted over Georgia?

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