Sep 052008

Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at the 2008 Democratic Convention, asked whether her supporters backed her just as a person or because of the issues she embraced, implying that of course they should answer: “the latter.” But we know that is not in truth the case. All candidates “flip-flop” to some degree on issues that might be important to their voters, and since no one can foresee exactly what will face successful candidates during the term of office in question, we have to embrace the person over the issues to a considerable extent. But what makes the embrace much stronger now is that the main candidates who received so much exposure and large audiences through the primaries and possibly before are all clearly stars. (The US is by no means the only country in which star power has become highly necessary for political success. The examples of Blair in England, Sarkozy in France, Berlusconi in Italy and Koizumi in Japan all used their ability to come across to large audiences as an essential part of their pull. And of course, actual celebrities like Schwarzenegger and Reagan have done well at times in the US. )

Stars, as I define them, are people who get much more attention than they give, and to whom, as a result, we offer up our loyalties in highly personal ways. Once someone is a star her or his fans feel a strong pull to that person, to refuse to substitute anyone else, and to identify with the vicissitudes of the star. People who are for Hillary may transfer their loyalites to Obama if she says so, because they want to please her, though this is not likely to be an easy or complete process. They are now loyal to him to a degree, but he still has to deepen that loyalty, by making it seem he notices and values them.

Meanwhile, of course, the Republicans decry Obama for being a celebrity, as if McCain were not, and then McCain chooses a vice-presidential candidate as much for personal traits as anything else. Now Sara Palin has appeared on the scene and received thundrous applause for her red-meat, rabid speech at the Republican Convention. Meanwhile people watching at home get more of a sense that she is worthy of attention because of the applause of that celebratory crowd in the hall.

So is Palin now a star who is likely to make much difference in the Presidential vote? I very much doubt it. One exposure in the political arena does not turn an unknown into a star for whom a great number of people are likely to work or to change their vote. In the condensed two months before the election, to make a real difference, Palin would have to open herself up to the public to a remarkable degree, and voters would have swoon over what they see. Furthermore, they would have to vote overwhelmingly with heart not head. I strongly suspect that Palin cannot make this work, because she really has little to offer that is positive, beyond a buoyant personality compared with her negative approach on most issues, and her too right-wing stance.

Does this mean Obama will win automatically? No. He has always had an uphill struggle. McCain has some crowd pleasing traits and his POW story. If Obama continues to seem high-minded and presidential, while at the same time emphasizing his own plans to turn the country around, and emphasizing that McCain is just copying his lines out of political expediency, he stands a good chance. The key point is that we have to believe in him, have to feel a deep tug based on his story, on his steadiness, his youth, and the rest.

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