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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan and “that great, wonderful, cheerful gang of folks at WXYZ who bring you the local news, weather and sports”.

Democrats who were hoping to see Sarah Palin fall flat on her face last Thursday and who were surprised by her performance had failed to note a key line in her resume – that she had worked as a sportscaster on TV.
Had they thought about it a bit they would have realized that the format of the VP debate – quite different from the probing of a one-on-one interview – would powerfully favor any candidate who had been trained in the modern “happy talk” format of local news – a format in which the newscaster, weather reporter and sportscaster are paid to bubble, giggle and chit-chat cheerfully with each other, to mug shamelessly into the camera and to generally project a “gosh we’re just having the best good old time of our lives delivering the local news” kind of attitude. Winks are not mandatory, but – along with cutsy-poo nose crinkles and manic eyebrow raising – they are not all that uncommon either.
If you found yourself wondering “where did Palin learn to do those moves?”, go out and rent “Up Close and Personal” – a 1990’s movie depicting TV veteran Robert Redford teaching rookie weathergirl Michelle Pfeiffer how to project warmth, confidence and animation on the small screen. You will have a painful but salutary “aha” moment when you see the some of the backstage mechanics behind the apparently effortless projection of onscreen energy, vitality and spunky charm.
Here’s one simple example – injecting animation and excitement into the voice. Listen to some of the debate again (if you can stand it) and note the way Palin’s voice rises and falls within every sentence and how she always puts emphasis on at least one word. It’s almost as if every fifth or sixth word is underlined. The effect is to convey both conviction and excitement.
To see how important this is, say the sentence “I really like peas” out loud, first putting strong emphasis on the word “really” and then on the word “like.” Although the underlying words are exactly the same, when spoken aloud the first sentence conveys something like “I’m not kidding here, I genuinely love those darn things” while the second sentence conveys something more like “I know lots of people are indifferent about peas but I personally think they are great” It is these subtle differences in tone and emphasis that create the impression of energy and freshness in spoken communication.
Palin is certainly not the first Republican politician to have been underestimated by Democrats because they do not understand the mechanics of TV. In the 1980 campaign and during his first year in office, Ronald Reagan was widely ridiculed and dismissed by Democrats because he carried around 3 x 5 cards with little sound-bites for the cameras (“Sound-bites” weren’t even called that until Reagan established them and got them recognized as a distinct political art form) and for his penchant for using personal anecdotes and stories rather than facts and data.
Many Democrats saw these things as evidence of his lack of experience and sophistication while Reagan – who had years of experience as a TV announcer and commercial pitchman in the 50’s – ripped through them like a buzz saw out of hell because he knew more about how to effectively engage TV viewers and form a bond with them then all his critics put together.
Reagan also perfected the entirely fictional TV character – “the ordinary, common-sense American goes to Washington to shake things up” that Sarah Palin is now channeling. Before Reagan, politicians always played this role as a demagogue – performed by bitter and nasty men like George Wallace, Richard Nixon Spiro Agnew and Pat Buchannan – men seething with resentment and anger. It was Reagan who created a different image of the conservative outsider – as an optimistic, cheerful and sunny visitor from the wholesome world of the “real” America. This is the role which first George Bush and now Sarah Palin have reprised for a new TV audience (Palin, in fact, was rather blatantly trying to use almost the entire big bag of vintage Reagan chops in last week’s VP debate – right down to his signature phrase “there you go again”. An excellent final essay for Media Studies classes this year would be “name all the classic Ronald Reagan tropes that Sarah Palin used in her VP debate” – anything less than eight items should be a D)
Let’s face it. It’s time Democrats stopped being blindsided by this stuff. There is almost nothing in Sarah Palin’s bag of tricks that Reagan didn’t use to great effect on Carter, Mondale and others 30 years ago (except perhaps for an occasional whiff of Reese Witherspoon in full speed plucky-spunky “if I am elected Miss Alaska” final speech uplift mode). We have to get serious about studying and understanding the media rather than wishing politics was still conducted like the Lincoln-Douglass debates.
Like the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
You betcha, goshdarnit.

4 comments on “Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan and “that great, wonderful, cheerful gang of folks at WXYZ who bring you the local news, weather and sports”.

  1. Jim in NC on

    I hate to be a downer this morning, but on many blogs, and the precious few liberal talk shows, there’s a lot of celebrating going on. This is NOT over. We have a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of evidence out there that the GOP is going to tamper with the vote like no other time. They’re desperate, resembling a cornered animal.
    PLEASE think for a moment what they’re going to lose IF they lose this election. They will lose the Supreme Court for decades, one of the biggest goals of the last 50 years. They will likely have to endure (if there’s ANY justice in this Universe) many, many probes into illegal activities born from this administration and Cheney’s reign of error (this could result in prison for some and a minority status for 20 years).
    Do you actually believe that THIS regime of Neo-Con-backed politicos will simply roll over and accept the will of the people wielding simple votes?
    They detest US. They’ll stop at nothing. We have work to do. Be realistic. Make calls. Talk to everyone. Volunteer. Anticipate the OCTOBER surprise.
    Only THEN celebrate on Nov. 5 after a win and there are no challenges in the courts.

  2. ThinkingGuy on

    The fact that Palin, and by extension, McCain, did not come out demonstrably better in the polls after the debate, (among independent undecideds) clearly indicates to me that whatever Palin did or did not do in the actual debate, she had little impact in regards to trend setting or changing.

  3. jgoodguy on

    There is one big difference, Reagan was at the top of the ticket and Palin is not.
    That comparison negates all other considerations.
    The big problem is that unlike Biden, she cannot hit the rough and tumble talk show circuit to influence the undecided voter. Nor can there be much of a campaign with out both appearing together.
    Yea she made it though without a costume malfunction or crying. But it does not to appear to affect anything much other than the zealots and pundits jumping up and down shouting at each other. There are no other debates and there will be no real press interviews. Therefore words and opinions are just for the pleasure of speaking them by the participants.

  4. velocipede on

    I think Palin’s sportscaster-style may have gone over well with people already inclined to like her, but to me her feigned sincerity and enthusiasm came off like a student who had been cramming for a week to make up for a year of not studying.
    The good news about her performance, in my opinion, is that it is now harder for McCain to pull the plug on her because she is now even more liked by the base.
    If he could suddenly drop her and pick someone with more gravitas, business and executive experience, like Romney, that could be another game-changer given the events of the last two weeks. As it is, the base would never forgive him if he dumped her now.


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