Edwards and Romney: A Study in Caricatures

John Edwards is in a lot of trouble.

The $400 haircut fiasco has become for him what "I voted for it before I voted against it" became for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign. Fairly or not, this caricature is sticking to Edwards and I'm not so sure he is able to successfully play it off.

The problem with caricatures is that they interfere with a politician's actual message. Obviously, a $400 haircut is not really worth talking about, especially since wealthy people and politicians often spend far more than that on their private jets, aged wines, fine dining, and hired help at their homes. A caricature requires less thought to process and internalize than an actual policy position. How many people actually know what Joe Biden's position on the Iraq War is? I'm willing to bet that far more people know that "he's the guy who says stupid things" or that "he's the gaffe machine" than know of his idea of partitioning Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions.

Democrats in particular have fared the worst when they fall prey to a caricature. It seems that Democrats and Republicans respond to them differently. Democrats try to compensate for the perceived flaw, thus coming across as unprincipled or scripted because it seems awkward. They may then be labeled as an opportunist or a political weathervane. Think about Al Gore's presidential run in 2000. People criticized him for being stiff. How did he "solve" the problem? By being overly aggressive and getting in George Bush's face at a debate. His overcorrection led to unfair (but effective) charges of there being "multiple Al Gores," thus creating yet another caricature that provided a convenient foil for the "plainspoken" Bush. When Gore actually found the "right" balance in the final debate, it was too late because this "new" Al Gore was just like the "old" one in that nobody knew who the "real" Gore was.

In 2004, John Kerry was caricatured, among other things, as an elitist who had nothing in common with "the average American." To compensate for this, he donned hunting gear and participated in a hunting trip/photo op in Ohio in the weeks before Election Day. This was absolutely disastrous for him because he obviously seemed out of his element, thus reinforcing the charges that "he cannot relate to what average people do because he's an elitist." At the same time, the photo op reeked of political opportunism and pandering, thus reinforcing yet another caricature of him--that he would say or do anything if he thought it would get him elected.

Republicans, on the other hand, seem to handle caricatures a bit more effectively. When their warts are exposed, they shine a lantern on them and play it off as "authenticity." George Bush was derided as "a lightweight" or "a buffoon" in the 2000 campaign. But rather than attempting to compensate for it by staging photo ops in libraries or using advanced vocabulary in his speeches, he turned it into an opportunity to appear humble and average--just like the average voter. How many times have you heard Bush and his handlers respond to claims of ineloquence by saying "that's just how he is"? They made no apologies for it and moved on. In the end, what separates Bush from Gore and Kerry in this regard is that with Bush, the caricature became a part of his identity, but it actually became Gore and Kerry's identity.

It appears that John Edwards is falling into the same trap. And what makes this trap even more lethal is the fact that the expensive haircut story contradicts the main pillar of his campaign--his crusade against poverty. So when he rails against the "two Americas" on the campaign trail, voters may have a hard time discerning whether Edwards is authentically talking about "his" campaign issue (poverty) or if he is trying to awkwardly compensate for being branded as a "rich kid who gets expensive haircuts."

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is being blasted as a flip flopper. But you'll notice that this label is not sticking to him as easily as the "rich kid" label is sticking to John Edwards. Instead of denying his obvious "conversions" on issues social conservatives hold dear (e.g., abortion, gay rights), he is actually embracing these new positions. He is not apologizing for holding views that are in line with those of the GOP base. And it is working because he is now buoyed by strong poll performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. There may be derisive remarks about "flip flop Mitt," but there are a lot of other remarks about "how Mitt is clearly running to the right."

However, even though he is responding to the flip flop caricature effectively, I believe he is doing a far less sufficient job of responding to the panderer caricature. It is no secret that Romney is trying to appeal to the millions of evangelicals that form the religious right. It is also no secret that many voters are uncomfortable with the fact that he is a Mormon. Romney recently created an ad comparing America's children to being trapped in a sea of filth and smut. One would think this ad would go over well because it appeals directly to the people he's trying to reach--religious voters. However, his overtures appear awkward and this latest ad is no exception. Voters may forgive Romney for his flip-flopping on conservative issues, but they may not forgive him for appearing like a fraud. Perhaps it would be wiser for Romney to address his Mormonism head on, rather than let it percolate beneath the surface every time he makes overtures to evangelical Christians without addressing the very issue that makes these Christians skeptical of him to begin with.

Hillary Clinton seems to understand this, as she is now bringing Bill Clinton along on the campaign trail. She is caricatured as "living in Bill's shadow." So what does she do? Rather than feed into the caricature by campaigning solo and letting these doubts linger, she lets him warm up the crowd for her. And even if she is not as charismatic as he is, at least she's able to show that she can stand on her own two feet even in his presence.

Rudy Giuliani seems to get it too. He knows he is not going to be seen as the champion of family values. So he doesn't showcase his wife when he's on the trail. What's the point of trying to show that your marriage and family life are really healthy when people already accept the fact that it's not? So Giuliani doesn't showcase his wife in his campaign ads. He's not running as the "family values" candidate either. Why should he? There's no benefit for him to do that.

John Edwards really needs to be careful because he has little margin for error now, especially in light of recent polls showing him in a statistical tie for third with Bill Richardson in New Hampshire. Once the candidate becomes the caricature, you're doomed.

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