PURELY POLITICAL: Framing the election message
In back-to-back speeches in two key swing states, the Obama campaign indicated how it wants to define the general election: as a choice between a tool of congressional Republicans who wants to undo the president’s first-term agenda and an incumbent looking to spend the next four years building on his achievements. – MSN.com, Wednesday
One of the fascinating elements of the American presidential campaign that touches us here is the way in which the contenders define each other’s public persona and platform.
And as much as some of us would like to pretend otherwise, general elections in Barbados are increasingly becoming “presidential” in that people are likely to vote for the party whose political leader would become Prime Minister.
It is a cardinal principle of any debate, especially the national discourse, that you define your own terms, or better, define your opponent’s.
According to the MSN report, Obama seemed to tie his presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney to representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which Democrats use to represent congressional Republicans’ entire agenda.
“Obama warned that in Romney, the House had a candidate who would be willing to gut Medicare and end regulations on insurance companies and banks – policies ‘that created this mess’,” the president said.
“After a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for president who has promised to rubber-stamp this agenda if he gets the chance,” Obama said.
The president also sought to define himself in his two speeches Saturday [May 12], employing populist themes that touch on those of several past presidential campaigns while remaining entirely unique to the Obama campaign, the report said. Using a sort of “values play” evocative of the pitches used by the Clinton campaign, the president’s wife Michelle underscored that he grew up in an environment where everybody played by the rules, sometimes struggling to get by.
“He is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills. That’s who he is. He’s the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn every day to catch a bus to her job at the bank,” the first lady said of her husband in Columbia.
“So believe me, Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” she continued.
In the collective mind of voting America, that presents a clear contrast with the independently wealthy multimillionaire son of a former car industry chief executive George Romney, who also served as governor of Michigan for six years from 1963.
But it is also true that in the United States, as it will be in Barbados, and in most general election campaigns worldwide, the state of the economy is going to be a critical factor in determining the outcome.
However, there is another truth, that in the prevailing political environment, the issue of leadership will also be a major factor.
The language used to frame, or define, the weaknesses and strengths of the two leaders in both countries will be crucial.
According to George Lakoff, the University of California linguistics professor, “framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary – and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas”.
In this sense, of the two leaders of the political parties in Barbados, Owen Arthur reigned for 14 years, while Freundel Stuart is a newcomer. The use of language to frame the former will focus on his age, while the language to frame the latter will focus on procrastination.
In every sense, though, the focus will be on the performance of the incumbent, including the unsettled leadership of his Government and party.
This combination offers a potent environment for political attack from an Opposition.
That is why on the issue of the economy, the Government will frame its performance within the context of a worldwide international economic recession.
As a counter, the official Opposition will frame it as a crisis of confidence in the quality of the leadership.
Framing Prime Minister Stuart as a procrastinator fits into the crisis of confidence. Procrastination refers to the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority.
When one thinks of procrastination, it evokes a frame of someone not making important decisions in a timely fashion. The failure to decide implies that some party is affected negatively. It also implies that the decision-maker takes blame. In short, a procrastinator believes he has all the time in the world.
The danger in such a frame for the Government is that as the economic conditions become more challenging, decision-making becomes more urgent. Therefore, the frame to treat the domestic economic problems as part of the worldwide situation suggests that the Government is waiting for solutions from abroad.
In these circumstances, the importation of solutions plays into the frame of procrastination.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that “what it comes down to is that there is one element in the mix of the economics and the politics – on which both Stuart and [his main leadership rival, Minister of Finance Chris] Sinckler can agree – it is that they both need time: Sinckler, for his economic policies to work, and Stuart, to resolve his political troubles”.
Indeed, the separation of the Ministry of Finance from the Prime Minister is an invitation to broaden the leadership base of the Government with the attendant difficulties, which in this case has worked perfectly because of the emergence of the so-called Eager Eleven.
The separation invites a contrast, and by extension conflict, where the procrastinator is pitted against the perceived doer. A doer is someone who does something and does it without reference to theorizing.
The definition of the doer heightens the contrast as Prime Minister Stuart has a reputation for words and scholarship with heavy emphasis on theorizing, while the Minister of Finance is seen as a pragmatist. There is ongoing evidence of the latter’s propensity to introduce measures which have to be revised over the short term. The former takes his time and prefers a phased approach to decision-making.
That is as stark a contrast as one could find.
From the perspective of framing, in the prevailing economic conditions, the doer is associated with having inflicted harm and burdens on the taxpaying public. It is therefore not difficult for the Opposition to fit the Minister of Finance in the crisis of confidence frame.
Unfortunately for the Government, the current Opposition Leader Owen Arthur is deliberately framed as one who “rescued” the Barbados economy, and further, provided relief during his 14-year tenure as Prime Minister.
The mission is for the Stuart Government and the Democratic Labour Party to frame Arthur as past his best and incapable of rescuing the economy and providing relief in his second coming.
A further difficulty for the Government is to shift the focus away from the economy in the upcoming general election. But even if the focus is shifted to leadership, framing a negative will be itself difficult.
It does seem that efforts at framing the campaign for the election will be challenging for the ruling party, especially since Arthur made the overtly tactical move to let former Opposition Leader Mia Mottley present the Estimates Reply and reports are that she is set to present the Budget Reply next month as well.
This move broadened the base of the Opposition’s leadership in a way that provides for succession.
In this instance, the separation creates a positive not a negative; any negatives in relation to the Opposition’s leadership will likely eventuate following Arthur’s departure.
Still, what is clearly evident is that the framing of the political message is going to be critical in the next general election, even moreso than usual.