February 10, 2008

Spin Cycles

While the horse-race style reporting of the 2008 Presidential Primary Race is tedious and the pundits’ endless analyzing of the polls is a grind, I don’t grow tired of watching how the campaigns react to things. Much fun is looking at how they try to spin primary & caucus results and what they try to do to distract us when the spin doesn’t work. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney’s quit deprives us of the most consistently entertaining spinster. Watching Mitt spin is like witnessing a contortionist knotting himself up, forgetting how to unwind, and then trying to explain that that is what he planed all along. His debate performances were the verbal equivalent of trying to herd cockroaches. And his assessment of his campaigning was downright bizarre. Add that the man tossed off enough frantic energy to fuel a week’s worth of Silicon Valley research and his entertainment quotient was high.

That is not to say that the way John McCain and Mike Huckabee spin is not entertaining. McCain’s reaction to anything is difficult to predict, making him much fun to observe (at least at this point, when his finger isn’t near any buttons). The testy, impatient McCain can be good for a thrill. It is when irritated that his eyes bead and face narrows. Words spit out of his mouth in short machine-gun like bursts and the cords on his neck get red and throb. It is seat’s edge wondering if he will snap. Even better is when McCain uses dry, sarcastic wit to spin. The spin often seems like non-spin, blatant replies which boarder on obvious; but then he betrays himself with a half smile, people chuckle, and move on. Watch McCain work and you see cynical genius, one of the best diverters in the biz. The man also has a very dark sense of humor and, if elected, might prove to be one of the funniest presidents ever.

Huckabee also spins with humor. His “aw shucks I don’t know better” tact is leveled with a bit of absurdity and punctuated by a wink. It is a loveable smart-ass approach that is nearly as effective of a diversionary tool as McCain’s deadpan. Huckabee’s throwing a jolly party and he doesn’t care who comes along. In non-spin mode he trots out his smarts, a tactic which keeps him from coming of as a total hick. The missing candidate, Ron Paul, doesn’t spin. He doesn’t have to, as no one is giving him anything to spin.

No one in this race is as smooth as Barack Obama. True that Obama often stumbles when he has to spin short – in length and on notice. However, twenty words in and given time to formulate an answer, he has no peer. The man’s command of the language and oratory style are refined enough to convince one that his spin is not spin, but is sincerity. And that might be true. In today’s world of 24-hour spin, it is difficult to suss out what is one’s real opinion and what is play for the crowd, or how much reality and artifice one’s reaction possesses. Trying to figure out if the sincerity is really spin is even more challenging. If Obama’s sincerity is really spin, he just be the world’s best spinmaster. I have a pretty well-oiled bullshit detector and can be a champion cynic, and I have to admit that I often don’t know when the guy is spinning or not.

And then there are the Clintons. While the Clintons employ no single tactic, few are the times when spin isn’t happening. Even moments that seem to happen spontaneously - such as Hillary’s New Hampshire diner breakdown - are immediately spun and then packaged and reused. The Clintons have been spinning for so long that it is probably impossible for them to stand still. Of the Clintons, Hillary is the best spin artist…but only when she is at her best. At those times, her spin is subtle and so orchestrated that its traces are minute. It usually comes in a single line, slipped into a debate or a one-on-one interview. Her execution is so spot on that it is only when she flounders and the spin become brutish and crude that you can track back and see the subtly.

Bill Clinton also has a yin and yang to his spin. When he is on, his spin is not unlike that of fellow Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—a charming, likable good ol’ boy who might not “play by the rules” but is there to help you. You know you are being bullshitted but it is both entertaining and done for the greater good. Bill’s bad spin is historic. It is the quibbling over the definition of “is.” It is pretty much any of his replies to the Monica Lewinski scandal. It is the “First Black President” pandering prior to the South Carolina primary.

The week following the “Super Tuesday” primaries saw the Clintons at their spinning worst. Hillary’s spins were oafish. First was the revelation of her $5 million loan to her campaign. “A good investment,” it was called. In reality, it was an act of desperation, an admission that she was not getting the bump in union money she expected by Edwards’ quit and that the Kennedy machine’s backing of Obama was a hit to her coffers. Whether the loan was a “good investment” is only true if the desired return is Obama, coming from 20 points down in the opinion polls to pretty much tying her for the popular vote. Senator Clinton’s reaction to MSNBC’s David Shuster’s remark that the Clintons were “pimping out” their daughter Chelsea by having her lobby Democratic “superdelegates” is further desperation. Sidestepping whether or not the Clintons were indeed “pimping Chelsea out” – and one could very well argue that they are – Hillary turned the “tasteless” observation to an attack on her mothering skills, her as a person, and the whole of Womankind. Clinton might be a great mom, but the moment any politician starts a sentence with “As a mother…” you know the spin is on. A day later, the subject o’ spin was once again fundraising. This time Hillary was trumpeting that her campaign had made $10 million in the week since Super Tuesday, information that could be considered just more data, if not for the meat-fisted way in which it was presented.

Consistent throughout the week was the insistence that everything in the Clinton campaign was going as planned, that the draw of Super Tuesday was expected and really no big deal, in fact, a great victory. While not quite Romneyesque, the Clinton delusion is pretty thick. How thick? Thick enough to send hubby Bill back on the campaign trail sans muzzle. Speaking in New Orleans, Bill claimed that Obama made "an explicit argument that the '90s weren't much better than this decade." Problem is that Obama said nothing of the sort. He has stated that whatever positive legacy the Clintons left behind was pretty much wiped out over the last 8 years - that is, unless one considers NAFTA, GATT, managed care, welfare reform, etc. some of the Clinton administration’s positive contributions of (my words, not Obama’s). So, unless the Clintons want to claim NAFTA and managed care, which I doubt, maintaining that everything positive the Clintons accomplished in the 90s is still in tact while arguing that Bush fucked up the country over his two terms doesn’t jibe. It is a spin is as crude as Bill framing Obama as a closet Reaganite because he (Obama) recognized that Ronald Reagan was a “transcendent political figure” who was able to change the country with the cooperation of Democrats. Both of Clinton’s spins are so far afield, so bereft of reality, that they qualify as outright lies.

As I’ve noted before, when they Clintons get crude in their spin, the assumption is that they are so much smarter than the rest of us that we won’t notice. We won’t fact check, we won’t analyze, we won’t be able to suss out lies. They treat us like the Bush administration treats the Washington press corps, and, like the corps, we are expected to suck it up. However, while the crude Clinton spin is insulting, from a life-long car wreck careener’s point of view, it is also very entertaining. And now that Clinton has sacked her campaign manager! The opportunities for spin are endless!

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