So it began, the battle for middle America. Senator Joseph Biden flashed a smile of assent, and moved to his podium. Sarah Palin looked confident, assured, enthusiastic, a long way from the nervous wreck she ought to have been. Whoever pepped her up for this pep rally, they did a damn good job.
Biden and I weren’t the only people worried about falling under her spell.
Others had already succumbed. I’m talking about the kind of wholesome, patriotic, all-Americans she's been selected to hold a mirror up to. Except that hers is a special mirror, one that only reflects their better angels, against the backdrop of a country occasionally glimpsed in their wholesome, patriotic, all-American dreams.
Even those of us on foreign shores probably see in Palin a flash of something we’d like to believe in, of a nation founded on hard work and good intentions. We certainly voted with our feet on Thursday night, making up what was (allowing for internet audiences as well as the 69.9million viewers who tuned in in the US) the most watched debate of all time, vice-presidential or otherwise. And rightly so. Anybody thinking they won't be affected by the outcome of this election would need to have left planet Earth some time ago.
That being the case, the result of the election may still be decided by a few hundred thousand people, in each of half a dozen states. These are the people for whom Palin is positioned as a natural friend, confidante and kindred spirit, someone who sits around a kitchen table bearing the weight of the same concerns on her broad, maternal shoulders.
This, of course, is bullshit.
The reality is that she’s the worst of both worlds, with more skeletons in her closet than your average Stepford wife, yet the vanity to have been persuaded that she should be just a heartbeat away from running the country. This, on the strength of having done little more than muddle her way through the same challenges many of us face trying to keep control of our cut-throat careers and fucked-up family lives.
It took only a few well-chosen words for Joe Biden to remind us that Sarah Palin has by no means a monopoly on hardship and adversity, or on the tenacity required to turn these to your advantage. On the contrary, Biden gives us a glimpse of a life less ordinary, delivered with a candour and honesty far less contrived than that of his opponent. He looks like a man who's learnt enough things the hard way to be tasked with making decisions on behalf of others. He gives us the credit for having been around the block a few times ourselves.
Biden's was a message of hope and encouragement, acknowledging the epochal importance of this election, and unchallenged in bestowing a damning verdict upon the last eight years. It was as much as Palin could do to keep distance between her ticket and the many manifest policy failures of the incumbent administration.
And, despite all her 'say it ain't so, Joe' protestations, it was Palin who ultimately invoked the message of fear and intimidation so fundamental to the Bush Doctrine, reasserting the facile and insidious mantra that it is the essential liberty of the American people that gains them so many enemies overseas.
It looks ever more as though only fear can win this battle now for John McCain. I'm talking about the fear that flows as an undercurrent through American society, occasionally swelling to the surface and erupting into outrage when a certain type of pressure is applied. This is the fear that can divide a nation along the fault-lines of race, religion and economic viability. This is the fear that still grips a significant proportion of the electorate when they consider voting for Barack Obama. Perhaps this is the fear that he will actually deliver on the promise of change, and that there will be no place for them in his America, a country unified by hope, and given strength in self-belief.
Whatever the case, it's going to get worse before it gets better. As the momentum shifts left, the more authoritarian McCain's candidacy can be expected to become, bullying the media and smearing and discrediting his opponents. Expect the rhetoric of intimidation, tapping ever deeper into these fears and anxieties, sugar-coated with the folksy familiarity, unblinking loyalty and saccharine certitude of his supposedly home-baked running mate. She has shown us, at the very least, that she can be well programmed.
That's how I heard that the GOP had just given up any attempt to turn the great state of Michigan red come November 5th 2008.
They'll tell you that it wasn't a key state for them, but it must have mattered enough for them to decide that it was worth spending some money there in the first place.
And that's part of the problem, right there. By accepting matching funds, McCain is having to deal with the campaign spending restrictions that go with them. If he needs to spend more fighting battles in supposedly safer states like Indiana and Virginia - and he does - he has to start cutting losses elsewhere. Even Rove can't spin that to make it look like a good thing.
Meanwhile the Obama camp, having eschewed federal assistance, are now free to spend as much as they can raise. They were busy launching an Obama '08 iPhone application. Might sound like a gimmick, but Twitter quickly came alive with positive feedback, reporting that the app makes smart use of the iPhone platform to engender greater awareness of Barack Obama's.
All of this just a few hours ahead of the vice-presidential debate, and a chance for Sarah Palin to stop haemmoraging credibility (or, according to one CNN closed caption, 'edibility') after a week in virtual freefall. The sense of anticipation on Twitter was palpable, with the left-leaning crowd quivering at the prospect of yet another own-goal from the free-scoring hockey mom.
At the same time, some armchair commentators were counselling caution, noting that Palin's currency had nowhere to go but up. Her performance would need to be little more than polysyllabic to be championed - on Fox News at least - as a shock victory for the little guy.
Let's get it straight right now. News 24 is for wimps. I've been mainlining this Twitter shit for days, carried through the veins of netroots political activism, pure, uncut, 100% District of Columbian.
My iPhone sits here, like a drip, feeding it to me intravenously, a steady unrelenting trickle of quips, commentary and outright provocation, filling me with the lifeblood of a good old-fashioned down and dirty god damn important presidential election campaign.
And the best thing about it? Well, every now and then, if you watch closely, and check your sources, you get to see that most wonderful of things.
So it’s welcome, one and all, as we go head-to-head here tonight, with Senate heavyweight and Democrat candidate for the Vice-Presidency Joe Biden taking on self-styled ‘Joe Six-pack American’ and Republican VPILF Sarah Palin.
We’ve already witnessed a thrilling first bout in the 2008 series. Somewhere between the irritable accusations of John ‘McSame’ McCain and the conciliatory counterpunches of Barack ‘Osama’ Obama each camp claimed a victory.
In the eyes of this pundit at least it was McSame who came off worst. Looking more war-horse than war hero, he was ultimately driven to behave like a low-ranking monkey. Never a good look, for a man who would be king.
And now comes the turn of our candidates for the Vice-Presidency, in what is surely the most tantalising and eagerly anticipated encounter of the series so far.
In the blue corner, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1942, we have a man who became the fifth youngest senator in US history when he was elected to represent the state of Delaware in 1973. A long-time member and current chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with 25 years of service to the US Senate under his belt, it's Joseph “Joe” Biden!
And it’s Palin everybody’s talking about in the build up to fight night, as she continues her seemingly implausible progress through the ranks of American party politics. Were she to make it within a 72-year-old’s heartbeat of the country’s highest office, surely this would be the greatest story ever told, and the ultimate triumph of the American Dream over the tedious trappings of reality, pragmatism and plain old common sense.
She’s certainly come out fighting. It was Palin who used a public appearance to stir up a war of words with Biden, seeming to suggest that the 65-year-old’s age might be an issue for his candidacy. “I’m the new energy”, she declared, drawing attention to the fact that while her opponent was passing throw-away legislation across the floor of the Senate, she was debating the ethics of moose-hunting at Wasilla High.
With Biden keeping his own counsel in the build up to fight night, all this talk from the Palin camp has left pundits (some of them staunch Republicans) openly questioning whether these two fighters even belong in the same ring.
Certainly, it’s hard to see how a political featherweight like Palin could ever get the better of a seasoned pro like Joe Biden. In this pundit’s opinion, however, Biden needs to be careful.
Palin’s might have her detractors among the educated liberal classes, but she's been 'awful busy' winning over hearts and minds throughout the mindless heartlands of middle America, and is not without her sympathisers among the mainstream US electorate. Biden has to find some way to land enough telling blows, without ever being seen to strike the lady.
Palin, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. Expectations are so low, all she has to do last a few rounds, go the distance even, and she gives herself a fighting chance of claiming victory.
Fight fans, whatever happens, just remember this. It isn’t down to Fox News to tell you who won. We’re the judges here, not just some unwitting audience, herded towards somebody else’s conclusion.
Maybe, if we judge for ourselves, we'll see that Palin's candidacy is just a cynical sleight of hand, seeking the right person for the ticket, at the expense of getting the right person for the job.
Right now, that’s a billion dollar maybe.
Quick word of thanks to KidRobot23 and Annie Ok for some eleventh hour help with this one.
Lakoff starts by examining Obama's post-RNC 'No Maverick' commercial, in which the Democrats confront McCain's attempt to position himself as a 'maverick', ready to confront mistakes and repair damage done by the current administration.
Lakoff's view is that negating what he refers to as the 'Maverick Frame' actually serves to reinforce it, and that the Democrats should instead be focusing on establishing a new frame for McCain, one that puts him on the defensive.
Highlighting McCain's record of voting with the current administration over 90% of the time, Lakoff suggests that he could be presented as a 'Yes-man', a characterisation originally used by Howard Dean in his speech to the DNC.
Over the course of Friday I saw a few other Twitter users picking up on this, culminating in the appearance of http://the-yes-man.com/
It's an unelaborate site, concentrating on the key reasons why we should understand John McCain within this frame; his Bush-friendly voting record; his close association with 'Big Oil'; the fact that his campaign team is haemorrhaging lobbyists, locking him into the traditional Washington political machine of which his presidency would undoubtedly be a willing and compliant extension.
Then, within the last few hours, a sign that the meme has crossed media:
At the same time that this is unfolding, it is being suggested that 'the liberal bloggers have become McCain central', and that this is playing into Republican hands. Writing on the Daily Kos, thereisnospoon mounts a compelling response to such claims:
"It is difficult for Republicans to turn on a dime, and there's very little creativity to come out of their collective establishment. If the campaign and the RNC doesn't push a meme, it doesn't get pushed. That has forced Republican candidates to largely have to own the slimy attacks put out by their own people."
"We, on the other hand, have no such obligation. The Obama campaign has been successful largely because of its inspiring "new brand of politics". Unfortunately [...] that makes it somewhat difficult for the Obama campaign to get quite as nasty with the opposition as it might need to. But that's OK--because that can be our job."
"It's our job to push memes the campaign can't. It's our job to focus on Republican chicanery that would waste the time of an Obama campaign that needs to be focusing its messaging on core economic issues. By talking about McCain's egregious lies and horrible personal ethics, we can help push the press to cover stories that the Obama campaign can't seriously push themselves."
"Everyone has a role to play: ours is to play hardball, to hit where it hurts, and to force the traditional media to cover what it might be uncomfortable covering otherwise."
The post as a whole reads as a manifesto for negative campaigning among the 'netroots', inciting Democrats to leave the moral high-ground to the above-the-line campaign, and to get busy with the nuts and bolts of slinging enough muck to stand a chance of actually winning the election.
I haven't figured out exactly where I stand on this, although I guess by posting on the subject I'm giving the Yes Man Frame a little bit more oxygen, and nailing my colours to the mast in the process. This in itself begs a number of questions, the most obvious of which is...
What the fuck does it have to do with you (i.e. me) anyway?
Isn't it arrogant not to mention presumptious of me to try and perpetuate this meme in my own small way, with the intention of interfering in and seeking to influence an election taking place in a country of which I am not even a citizen?
Well, I don't think so.
I've held the view for a while now that this is by far the most important election to have taken place in my lifetime.
I base this principally on the extent to which the Bush administration has damaged the global geo-political climate generally, not to mention the skepticism his stolen elections have inspired as regards the integrity of American democracy itself.
It also seems pretty clear to me that, though the outcome of this election will (hopefully) be determined by the will of the country's citizens, the impact will be felt throughout the civilised world.
This is epitomised in relation to the issue of climate change. I meet more and more people sharing my view that the adverse effects of global warming are upon us, and that we may find ourselves being forced to change our way of life much sooner than previously imagined, on a genuinely global scale. On this basis alone, the governance and energy policy of one of the world's largest polluters is of excrutiating importance to us all.
Beyond this and plenty of other practical considerations, there's a more abstract reason why I feel such a significant stake in this election.
I still believe that if any country in the world could ever claim to carry a flag for human civilisation as a whole, it is the United States of America. I still find substance in the idea of an American dream, albeit that this has been systematically subverted by those with an interest in repackaging it as a crass consumerist call-to-arms. I still have faith in the principle of democracy, and the idea that governance should be designed to best serve those being governed, smiling most kindly upon the least fortunate of us.
I think that now may be a tipping point for the meaningful survival of these values. I'm not sure they it can survive four more years of the incumbent regime, and the defeat of by far the most exciting presidential candidate since JFK.
Like Kennedy, in Barack Obama we find a candidate who seems to articulate and symbolize the libertarian ideals upon which the United States of America claims to be founded, at a time when the country itself and the world as a whole needs so desperately to be reminded what those are.
Contrast this with Mr McCain.
I watched closely as he accepted the nomination at the Republican convention, weaving his rhetoric into a mandate for the continuation of the Bush Doctrine, and it looked like more of the same.
I watched his choice for vice-president condemn 'unprovoked' Russian aggression whilst simultaneously endorsing Israel's right to judge for itself what steps were necessary to defend its borders, and it looked like more of the same.
I'm watching a campaign unfold that's permeated by double-standards, half-truths and plain, good old-fashioned lies, and it looks like more of the same.
As if that isn't enough, I just keep picturing the scene, a few months into a McCain presidency, when the first of the calls comes in from Dick, or George Sr, asking after a juicy little piece of legislation, or sowing the seeds of some profitable new foreign intervention. Every time I play it through, I just can't see John McCain saying "no".
That's why I'm hoping the American electorate do, while they still have the chance.
* * *
Postscript: I just got in after a long weekend ready to put the finishing touches on this post and I found the following unsolicited message in my normally spam-free Gmail inbox, under the subject line 're: Important':
"The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who Is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost invariably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And if he is not romantic personally, he is apt to spread discontent among those who are." Henry Louis Mencken
I'm in the office late working on a major pitch, in that kind of precarious tired strung-out work situation where you can lose perspective. Then I watch this, and it's puts everything back in perspective, and I realise that I'm not alone, and that I'm right to be scared.
I tweeted this, I'm blogging it, I want to spread it as far and wide as possible. Because the next eight weeks are eight of the most important weeks in my life, and probably yours too.
I found this great little animation on Paul Isakson's blog. I have no idea who he is, but I've seen his posts recommended on Twitter more than once, and I've always enjoyed them.
There's a sweet little website that goes with it encouraging you to 'send an intervention email to a screen addicted friend'.
It's actually a very gentle advertisement for a site called Meetup, which provides people with a few simple tools to help them form groups and arrange meetups around local common interests. Their mantra is use the Internet to get off the Internet. So, nothing oxymoronic about that then.
Seriously, the more I see a career in interactive media stretching out ahead of me, the more I find myself trying to find ways of working without a computer, dodging the increasingly frequent distractions of email and that distraction from distraction, Twitter.
I think maybe this is part of the reason I'm getting busy in the garden, taking the chance to be truly creative, and to produce a few of the indivisible raw materials of day-to-day subsistence.
I guess It's not so much about finding the right work/life balance, as finding the right screen/life balance.
Of course, I'm telling you this sitting here in front of the computer at eleven minutes past seven on a Tuesday morning, having already checked Twitter umpteen times and picked up my first wave of daily email. So, nothing oxymoronic about that then.