Oh, it was a valuable lesson. It was the early seventies, graduate school at Duke University, working on the first step, the Masters degree, and the analytical paper was on some Ben Jonson play or other. Somehow or other, at that time, it seemed a fine idea to get a PhD in English Literature – you could spend your career in some leafy small college lecturing on Swift and Pope and grading papers, and kick back in the summers. And I already had the tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches and smoked a pipe, and I had my fellowship to pay for this journey to serene academia. And the Ben Jonson play – it was Epicoene: Or, the Silent Woman – was a hoot. Actually, it was quite offensive – but that’s not the point. What happened was that the graduate professor, with all his years of tenure and his many books, pulled me aside for a chat. He said I was right about the Jonson play – I had made some fine observations and displayed my reasoning quite nicely. But the paper was unacceptable – it was far too breezy and conversational. It was a matter of tone. I needed to work on sounding like a member of the profession – there were certain standards of discourse and I was ignoring them. Others would not take me seriously. So I rewrote the paper to MOP – Member of the Profession – standards. I made it dull, or serious. Take your pick. But I didn’t end up at that small, leafy liberal arts college, filling quiet afternoons with discussions of Swift or Pope. The price was too high.
But the lesson was clear. Know your audience.
Fast forward to the mid-eighties, San Pedro, down by the harbor here, working for an aerospace company, writing exceedingly clever but minor computer applications, and enjoying it immensely, with the second wife working on her degree at Cal State Long Beach. It was a Wednesday evening and her friend Rita was visiting, all down in the dumps because she had an Art History paper due, and she had no idea what she could say about Kandinsky compared to Pissarro, or some such thing.
Why not help her? I told her to grab a pad and write down a series of key sentences. She did – Kandinsky takes as his subject matter the nature of motion, while Pissarro takes as his subject matter the nature of light, and then an array of secondary sentences that sounded all academic and serious. She could string these together anyway she liked. She took notes. At that point, what did she have to lose? And the next week she dropped by and said she got an A on the paper and a special commendation. How did I do that? I told her it was easy. Just know your audience. It’s one or two rather ordinary observations surrounded by the strings of particular words that make you sound profound, in the right way, for the sort of people who end up teaching Art History in Long Beach. I didn’t mention Pavlov and the salivating dogs, but that was the general idea. You get to know such people.
Perhaps everyone learns this lesson – know your audience – one way or another. We are social animals after all. And this is the essence of political campaigning – what they call connecting with the voter. You may know all the ins-and-out of complex public policy, in detail, from years of experience, and you may have fine ideas, subtle and devastatingly effective, but you need people to vote for you, and you need to reach them at their level. Approach things at too high a level and they don’t get it, or get bored. Make things too simple and you seem like a condescending con-man, playing them for fools – they get insulted at being talked to as if they’re children. It’s tricky. You need to know the appropriate shorthand.
Add that voters range from eighth-grade dropouts to those with multiple advanced degrees, who live from Tulsa to Billings to Manhattan to Hollywood, and all points in between – even Ohio. That makes things trickier. And everyone had their own agenda, or multiple agendas, from evangelicals offended by this or that, to outraged populists who want things fairer for the little guy and minorities, to those worried sick that the economy will collapse if we don’t recapitalize the five major banks and do something about the details of securities regulations and bring back the up-tick rule. And on television you have the pundits and commentators, all Washington insiders, explaining things in what they say are simple terms, for those not part of the big time of power politics. They trot out experts, or nut-jobs, to provide detail. So your audience is mixed and has been processed, like bad orange cheese. Know your audience? This isn’t like dazzling the one obscure arts professor with catch phrases and mind-numbing passive voice banalities. This might be impossible.
But with the last presidential debate, on October 15, John McCain solved the puzzle. Holy Toledo! – He found a plumber from Ohio, from Toledo, actually. He stumbled upon the appropriate shorthand.
But as Amie Parnes and Carrie Budoff Brown discuss in Politico, nothing is perfect:
John McCain hung his final presidential debate performance on an Ohio plumber who campaign aides never vetted.
A day after making Joseph Wurzelbacher famous, referencing him in the debate almost two dozen times as someone who would pay higher taxes under Barack Obama, McCain learned the fine print Thursday on the plumber’s not-so-tidy personal story: He owes back taxes. He is not a licensed plumber. And it turns out that Wurzelbacher makes less than $250,000 a year, which means he would receive a tax cut if Obama were elected president.
Yep, Joe the plumber isn’t a plumber, and his first name is actually Sam, and he’s not an undecided independent angry with Obama, but a right-wing guy well known on local talk radio, and his story of hating that his quarter million dollar business would be taxed by an Obama administration is kind of odd, because he earns forty grand a year and doesn’t own the business, and he hasn’t paid his taxes anyway. Oops.
Well, McCain’s folks work out their tactics on the fly. This should have been good shorthand, and they’re still working it, but it is kind of an embarrassment.
Here’s what happened:
A McCain source said Thursday that the campaign read about Wurzelbacher on the Drudge Report, while another campaign aide confirmed that he was not vetted. Senior McCain adviser Matt McDonald told Politico after the debate that Wurzelbacher was not aware that he would become central to the candidates’ third and final showdown, although Wurzelbacher told reporters Thursday that the McCain campaign contacted him earlier in the week to ask him to appear with the candidate at a Toledo rally scheduled for Sunday. (He may not make it, now that he’s scheduled to be in New York for TV interviews.)
“Joe, if you’re watching, I’m sorry,” McCain said Thursday, referring to the press attention that the Ohio man had received, during a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.
The odd thing is that they’re going with this guy, as shorthand, anyway:
His campaign released a web ad titled “Joe the Plumber.” McCain opened his rally in Downingtown, Pa., with a shout-out to Wurzelbacher.
“We had a good debate last night. I thought I did pretty well, but let’s have a little straight talk: the real winner last night was Joe the Plumber,” McCain told 1,000 people. “He won and small businesses across America won, because the American people are not going to let Senator Obama raise their taxes in a tough economy.”
For a few moments, the crowd chanted, “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
“Joe’s the man!” McCain yelled back.
Obama seems to be giggling – “He is trying to suggest that a plumber is the guy he’s fighting for. How many plumbers do you know making a quarter of a million dollars a year?”
I don’t have any Joe the Plumbers in my neighborhood that make $250,000 a year that are worried. The Joe the Plumbers in my neighborhood, the Joe the Cops in my neighborhood, the Joe the Grocery Store Owners in my neighborhood – they make, like 98 percent of small businesses, less than $250,000 a year. And they’re going to do very well under us, and they’re going to be in real tough shape under John McCain.”
The background of this is odd too:
The exchange between Obama and Wurzelbacher that first brought him to the McCain campaign’s attention occurred Sunday while the Democratic nominee was canvassing for votes in Toledo.
“I’m being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American Dream,” Wurzelbacher told Obama, adding he was concerned about having to pay more taxes as he worked towards his goal of buying his own plumbing business, which could draw income of $250,000 a year. “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
Obama said that, under his proposal, those making $250,000 or less would not pay more in taxes, but incomes above that level would be subject to a higher tax rate.
“It’s not that I want to punish your success, I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you – that they’ve got the chance at success too,” Obama told Wurzelbacher. “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Cue the big discussion – socialism – as in this country we get to keep everything we earn, every penny, and no one can take it from us and give to no-good, lazy bums who expect a handout, and so on and so forth. It’s every man for himself – that’s freedom, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. All else is communism, or something:
“It’s an outrage that the Obama campaign and the media are attacking Joe the Plumber for asking a legitimate question of a presidential candidate. This is why voters still have so many questions about Barack Obama. Instead of answering tough questions, his campaign attacks average Americans for daring to look at the reality behind his words,” said Tucker Bounds, spokesman the McCain-Palin campaign. “John McCain will continue to fight on behalf of all hardworking Americans like Joe for policies geared toward increasing prosperity and reducing the burden on taxpayers – not ‘spreading the wealth around’ for Senator Government to distribute as he sees fit.”
Well, the shorthand may be defective – Joe isn’t what he says he is – but it’s doing what it should, perhaps. Obama said we should share, and help each other, for the common good – and tax policy can actually do that sort of thing. One side says that’s immoral. Whatever – we’ve argued that for a century or more.
Don’t turn to the pundits to straighten things out. They’re still trying to figure out why people decided that McCain lost the last of the presidential debates.
See Mike Tomasky:
And still, voters say Barack Obama slaughtered him.
By 53-22%, 638 uncommitted voters polled by CBS chose Obama as the winner. CNN was a little closer, 58-31%. All those other measures, who’ll do better at blah blah and understands yada yada…Obama, Obama, Obama.
I actually don’t understand it. I didn’t even think Obama was quite on his game. He should have gotten much the better of the economic-crisis debate, but it seemed to me that McCain represented his proposals slightly better than Obama represented his. I even sort of thought that during the abortion segment (although I bet pro-lifers didn’t – McCain may have lost more than a few of them by wandering from the talking points on Roe v. Wade).
Well, this too may have been a matter of shorthand. See Matthew Yglesias:
To me, the crux of the matter is that McCain can’t get out of the habits that served him very well when he was a Senator building a glowing national reputation largely by talking directly to elite members of the political press. If you watched the previous two presidential debates, plus the VP debate, plus about half of the Democratic primary debates, plus the prime time speeches at the Democratic National Convention, and you’ve seen a dozen Obama surrogates yakking on cable a dozen times each just since Lehman Brothers went under then it gets kind of boring to watch Obama stay calm and repeat his talking points on the key issues.
But the debate is targeted at folks who haven’t watched all that stuff. And a lot of McCain’s best moments will have gone way over the heads of most people.
McCain then was using shorthand only insiders understood:
For example, he alluded at one point to a desire to allow more imports of sugar ethanol. Now if you’re familiar with the details of the ethanol debate, you’ll know that McCain’s stance on this is correct on the merits. And you’ll also know that Obama is a big support of corn ethanol both because they grow corn in downstate Illinois and because they made a big push for the Iowa Caucuses. McCain, by contrast, has a long and principled record on corn ethanol that’s hurt him in Iowa. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it is a nice illustration of some of McCain’s key campaign themes. And yet he didn’t try to explain it at all. Similarly, he’s had a knack for besting Obama on national security issues nobody cares about, like the relationship of US-Colombia trade deals to the US-Venezuela proxy conflict playing out in the Colombian jungle. People figure that Obama seems like a smart guy, and if something important happens involving a guerilla group nobody’s heard of fighting a president nobody’s heard of in a country nobody cares about, that Obama’s up to the task of coming up with a good idea – meanwhile, McCain has no education policy.
Obama used shorthand for the masses:
What Obama’s good at doing is redirecting conversations to things people care about. He’s good at conveying both with words and body language that when the subject shifts to something people don’t care about, that he’d rather be addressing the things people care about. He’d rather be talking about something else, but unlike McCain he’s not personally affronted that the other side criticizes him. It’s not about how he feels or what he wants but about what normal people want to hear about. By contrast, McCain’s key campaign theme is that McCain is awesome and that the government should spend less money, neither of which have anything to do with real problems in real people’s lives.
That’s about it. Put aside the idea that McCain has decided that people want a president who is personally offended when anyone disagrees with him, and as a point of pride ridicules them – that’s another sort of decision, and he may be right or wrong, depending on whether people admire that or not. Some do, some don’t. The issue here is that McCain hadn’t found his Joe-the-Plumber yet and was using the wrong shorthand. As John Podhoretz says, McCain screwed up:
The problem, in my view, is that the shorthand in which McCain spoke about these matters made them comprehensible only to those of us who are already schooled in them. In almost every case, Obama answered McCain’s shorthand with longhand – with detailed, even long-winded answers that gave the distinct impression he was more in command of the details of these charges than the man who was trying to go after him on them.
Kevin Drum comments:
McCain was talking in “code.” Over and over he’d respond to Obama with a brief staccato outburst – “health of the mother,” “statute of limitations,” “marketing assistance program,” “helping FARC,” etc. – that political junkies might have understood, but probably no one else. He sounded like a guy who had so many preplanned attacks lined up that he could barely spit all of them out in the allotted time. At times he almost seemed like he was gasping for air.
Joe Klein at Time says listening to political junkies and pundits is useless:
Pundits tend to be a lagging indicator. This is particularly true at the end of a political pendulum swing. We’ve been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working – and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama: you’re going to raise our taxes, you’re going to spend more money, you want to negotiate with bad guys, you’re associated somehow – the associations have gotten more tenuous over time – with countercultural and un-American activities.
Again, these arguments have “worked” for a long time. The Democrats who got themselves elected President during most of my career were those most successful at playing defense: No, no, I’m not going to do any of those things! And so the first reaction of more than a few talking heads last night was that McCain had done better, maybe even won, because he had made those arguments more successfully than he had in the first two debates.
I disagreed, even before the focus groups and snap polls rendered their verdict: I thought McCain was near-incomprehensible when talking about policy, locked in the coffin of conservative thinking and punditry. He spoke in Reagan-era shorthand. He thought that merely invoking the magic words “spread the wealth” and “class warfare” he could neutralize Obama.
This doesn’t work any longer:
Indeed, they have become every bit as toxic as Democratic social activist proposals – government-regulated and subsidized health care, for example – used to be. We have had 30 years of class warfare, in which the wealthy strip-mined the middle class. The wealth has been “spread” upward. The era when Democrats could only elect Presidents from the south, who essentially promised to take the harsh edge off of conservatism, is over. Barack Obama is the most unapologetic advocate of government activism since Lyndon Johnson – which is not to say that his brand of activism will be the same as Johnson’s (we’ve learned a lot about the perils of bureaucracy and the value of market incentives since then) – and he seems to be giving the public exactly what it wants this year. Who knows? Maybe even the word “liberal” can now be uttered in mixed company again.
The shorthand changed. What worked before doesn’t seem to work now, and Klein says the problem might be that journalism is about the past:
We are much better at reporting things that have happened than in predicting the future. We never seem so foolish or obnoxious, especially on TV, as when we accede to the constant demand for crystal-balling. But the obvious danger inherent in journalism is that we tend to get trapped in the assumptions of the past. Too often this year, my colleagues – especially those who are older than me, but also my fellow baby boomers – have seemed a bit moldy in our questioning of politicians: What are you going to do about budget deficits? What are you going to do about entitlement programs?
Who cares? Times have changed:
We need to spend money now to create jobs, to keep up with the rest of the world on alternative energy and high-tech infrastructure… Oh, and by the way, if government activism is now back on the table, we can begin to talk about the real answers to our entitlement problems: Medicare and Medicaid can only be solved when they’re included in a comprehensive, regulated and managed universal health insurance system.
The point is, this is a very good year to be Senator Government. Ronald Reagan used to say that the most frightening nine words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” That is no longer true. This year, the most frightening eight words are “I’m John McCain and I approved this message.”
That seems about right. You cannot dazzle anyone with 1982 shorthand now.
But you need to be careful too. No shorthand may ever work. People make up their own. See Larry Bartels on voter irrationality:
Voters have great difficulty judging which aspects of their own and the country’s well-being are the responsibility of elected leaders and which are not. In the summer of 1916, for example, a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson – a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties – ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred.
Yes, you should know your audience. What if they’re just nuts?