Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Has Obama lost the plot?

Suddenly, it doesn't look so good for Barack Obama. Not only is the McCain campaign delighted to discover - and Obama's people at least as horrified - that the Democrat has been the recipient of Gordon's curse. He also finds himself accused of comparing Sarah Palin to a pig. The Republicans have leapt upon the apparent gaffe - made at an event in Lebanon Virginia - with glee. Obama stands accused of resorting to crude, sexist insults. The reality is more complex. What Obama actually said was this:

Apart from (everything) we're really going to shake things up it Washington. But you know, that's not change. That's just calling the same thing something different. You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change and it's still going to stink. We have had enough of the same old thing, it's time to bring about real change to Washington.

If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig is a fairly well-known American proverb. I have found examples of its use in recent years to describe a troubled digital library scheme and a reorganisation at Motorola. John McCain himself is on record as using the expression in relation to Hillary Clinton.

Yet many in Obama's audience interpreted it as a jibe at Palin, and laughed accordingly. And there's the problem. Obama is supposed to be super-smooth, super-articulate, an inspiring and original speaker. In this clip he is none of those things. He comes across as rather lacklustre, hesitant even. And it's hard to avoid the impression that he had Sarah Palin at the back of his mind, somewhere, as he made the comments.

It's not simply that Palin used the word "lipstick" in the most quoted line of her much praised speech last week. Or that Obama's follow-up line, about stinking fish, reinforces the impression with its subliminal reference to Todd Palin's career in the fishing industry. It's that the remark makes much more sense - and carries considerably more weight - with Palin in mind.

Alex Spillius in the Telegraph blogs (who was in Virginia to hear Obama drop his clanger) is sceptical that the candidate had ill intent. "Like any politician, he can be disingenuous, but stupid he is not." It was, he concludes, merely "thoughtless". I'm not entirely convinced.

Of course, Obama isn't suggesting that Palin is a pig. It's quite clear from his remarks that it's the Republican policies - the policies of the Bush administration which the Democrats want to pin onto the soi disant maverick McCain - that Obama was comparing to a pig. But it's equally clear, if the simile is to mean anything at all, that Sarah Palin is the lipstick.

To call Palin a pig with lipstick would be rude and offensive, as well as "sexist" and betrays a coarseness that doesn't fit with anything we have learned about Obama's character. But to call her "lipstick" - to suggest that she is merely lending glamour and feminine acceptability to an otherwise unattractive message and unelectable candidate - may be "sexist" in another sense. The implication is that she's just a pretty face (a proposition for which there is less and less evidence). At the same time, it forms an important plank in the Democratic response to the Palin phenomenon which seems, for now at least, almost unstoppable.

(Actually, if you put lipstick on a pig, what you end up with is Miss Piggy, a megalomaniacal diva who makes up for in persistence what she lacks in natural talent. But that's by and by.)

[UPDATE: In the comments, "As you like it" points me to a Democrat messageboard on which the "lipstick on a pig" line was used in relation to Palin as long ago as 30th August. "Liz" wrote as follows:

Palin does not change one single thing of what the Republicans are offering which is four more years of George Bush. All that McCain did was to put lipstick on the Pig (the Bush Administration whose failed strategies have wrecked our nation). Nothing has changed except for an exciting and sexy dash of lipstick to freshen up their tired old face of more of the same.

The same people who do not like the Bush Administration for what it has done to this nation are not going to be fooled by the lipstick on the pig. And it they think that the American public are so stupid that they will rush over now and kiss their pig of a platform because it is wearing a fresh touch of lipstick, well I think they will be surprised. Economically, the majority of Americans are at the breaking point. Most American families literally cannot stand another four more years of the same.

This fits in well with my theory of Palin being the lipstick rather than the pig. It also makes Obama's protestations look rather hollow, since the argument is almost indistinguishable from his later remarks.]

Whether the "pig" line was a clumsy slip of the tongue or a piece of sly insinuation that badly misfired probably matters little. Either way, it doesn't look good. Not for the first time, Obama has (to resurrect a phrase from an earlier phase of the White House race) "mis-spoken" - and, in so doing, shown an open goal to a newly energised and merciless Republican base. This mishap comes a matter of days after a video-clip started circulating in which Obama referred to "my Muslim faith", giving some credibility to an earlier rumour that he had once been (or possibly still was) a Muslim. Taken in context, of course, his remarks to interviewer George Stephanopolous are nothing of the kind, but rather refer to the smears of the unofficial McCain campaign:

OBAMA: You and I both know that when Gov McCain was forced to talk about her daughter, I said, "that's all just flippancy"...[yet the McCain campaign accused me of raising the issue] "You're absolutely right that Sen McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith"

STEPHANOPOLOUS: "Your Christian faith"

OBAMA: My Christian faith.. what I'm saying is that he hasn't suggested that I'm a Muslim, and his campaign upper echelons haven't done either. What I'm suggesting is that... coming out of the Republican camp there have been efforts to suggest that I am not who I say I am when it comes to my faith.

What he is suggesting, presumably, is that if McCain isn't responsible for calling Obama a Muslim, Obama is equally not responsible for dragging Palin's family into the political mud. But he didn't word it very elegantly. Not all presidents need to have the gift of the gab, of course. Both Bushes are notorious for their mangling of the English language. McCain's own failings as a rhetorician were cruelly exposed last week. Obama, however, has built most of his reputation on being a brilliant and charismatic wordsmith. It was his strongest asset, according to his supporters; his only asset, according to his opponents. So it's rather odd to find him of all people losing the plot verbally. And it must be worrying for the Democrats.

Perhaps the stress is getting to him. In the LA Times, Andrew Malcolm suggested that:

Those traveling with the Obama campaign in recent days, like The Times' Peter Nicholas, have noted a new, more emotional tone creeping into his comments. His public persona is often described as cool. But since last week, hitting the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan and Virginia as poll numbers dipped, Obama has seemed increasingly combative.

Ah yes, those poll numbers. It wasn't long ago that an Obama presidency looked a near inevitability: he was facing an ageing representative of a party whose policies were widely deemed to have failed; he was newsworthy, exciting, the incarnation of Change. Not any more. Even before the conventions he had a surprisingly small, arguably vanishing, lead. Perhaps it was his hubristic tour of Europe, his aping of Kennedy (or receiving the curse of Brown) that was the turning point. There's no doubt, though, that Sarah Palin's emergence has transformed the psephology.

In one poll out on Sunday, McCain had opened up a ten point lead. On Monday, another poll showed a 20% swing away from Obama among white women - Hillary supporters, many of them. As I suggested the other day, many of these women are not particularly interested in, or necessarily supportive of, the traditional feminist positions on such subjects as abortion. But they respond to Palin as a woman. It was notable, in her convention speech, that Palin addressed herself to the concerns of women, presented herself as an ordinary "mom" - which she both is and isn't true, but is undeniably powerful.

When Palin first emerged on the scene, Obama displayed a fairly sure touch, unlike many of his supporters who were openly contemptuous and fell delightedly on the baby-swapping rumours like a pack of starving wolves who suddenly happen on a particularly fine moose carcass. But then, at the beginning, McCain's appointment was seen by much of the political and media establishment as dangerous, even mad. Not any more. However much her way-out views and provincial background grate on many committed Democrats, independents have fallen in love with her.

Sarah Palin, at the moment at least, is made of teflon. Her own "pitbull" joke, as I mentioned the other day, might have seemed in poor taste, coming as it did little more than a fortnight after a six year old girl in her home state died as the result of a pit bull attack. But that dog didn't bark, let alone bite. Similarly, attempts to make an issue over Palin's flip-flopping on the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere", or the vexed but distinctly parochial "troopergate", have come to nought, or at least to very little. She has successfully neutralised potential embarrassment over her daughter's pregnancy (although if the National Enquirer can stand up a story about her son taking drugs, the parenting issue might resurface). When our own Russell Brand made fun of her at the MTV awards, his once rocket-like US career took an instant nosedive.

Sound familiar? This time last year, Hillary Clinton's seemingly regal progress to the Democratic nomination began to come unstuck as Obama's soaring oratory and message of change and hope caught a public mood. Skeletons rattled around in his closet - the Pastor Wright affair was the noisiest - but no dirt really clung. Suddenly, the Clintons seemed history, compromised, fighting old battles. It was in vain that Hillary protested that her experience and platform offered reality while Obama was full of hot air.

There were signs, even before the primary season ended, that Obama's challenge was beginning to fade. He didn't romp home to victory: Clinton, in the final contests, had made up a lot of ground, the opposite of what usually happens in these campaigns where support flows towards the winning candidate. Had her recovery happened a few weeks earlier she might easily have pulled level or even won. But in a few vital months at the beginning of the year, Barack Obama was unstoppable, his popularity rock-star like, his media coverage awestruck and largely unquestioning. Then it started to go wrong. What had seemed fresh and invigorating suddenly looked just a little bit ridiculous.

Obama must be hoping that a similar reordering of perceptions occurs with respect to Sarah Palin. And soon.


valdemar said...

Well, if Obama loses he can stand again. But he could still win the debates. Which, at the present rate, will start around the time I collect my pension.

Anonymous said...

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Chris said...

>Actually, if you put lipstick on a pig, what you end up with is Miss Piggy, a megalomaniacal diva who makes up for in persistence what she lacks in natural talent.

I find this obvious attempt to slur Hillary Clinton totally er, acceptable.

lost causes said...

Nobody ever went broke (or lost an election) by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. This tactical move is incredibly shrewd - basically they realised that a proportion of women just wanted a woman candidate - whether or not that candidate is a feminist or a gun toting right-winger, is pro-choice or "pro-life". is a Republican or a Democrat.

The US will get the (vice) president it deserves - let's hope there's more Matt Damon's out there!