Framing the Candidates (Part Two): The Vice Presidential Videos

Last time, I introduced George Lakoff’s argument that the two major American political parties adopt different frames, based on images of parenthood and the family, for understanding the political process: the Strict Father paradigm associated with Republicans and the Nurturing Parent paradigm associated with the Democrats. I applied these two frames to looking more closely at the videos shown at the two party conventions to introduce Obama and McCain to the voters. If anything, the models fit too easily onto those videos, reflecting the degree to which Lakoff has not simply described the rhetoric of the two parties, but perhaps helped to shape them. Both groups knew what they were doing in constructing videos which would appeal more solidly to their bases. And my hunch is that both sides read Lakoff as they sat down to produce the videos.

Yet, Lakoff also makes the point that independent voters may be torn between conflicting understandings of the family and that all of us have within us some elements of the other model which also shapes our emotions and actions. So, we should be looking for the elements which contradict these dominant frames as offering ways that the campaigns might broaden their appeal. Last time, I discussed, for example, how the McCain video uses images of his mother, even the phrase “mother’s boy,” to soften his tough, military-based persona, and how he was able to use images of personal suffering to express both vulnerability and toughness. We see many more such contradictions — or appeals across party — when we look at the videos for the Vice Presidential candidates. Traditional logic is that the VP choice is for charging up your base while the Presidential candidates have to work across party lines. It’s easy to see how this works in the two convention speeches. But I would argue that more bridge building takes place in the videos for the VP candidates than for Obama and McCain themselves.

Keep in mind as you watch that these videos are shorter than those for the top of their tickets and that they were produced under many more constraints. In both cases, the VP choices were announced just a few days before the conventions which means the teams would have had to scramble to pull these together, while the candidate’s own videos were crafted over weeks and probably in planning from the moment they launched their campaigns.

One thing to look out for in these two videos is the role of the music in shaping how we respond to the still images and spoken words. In the case of the Obama video, the music borrowed heavily from Aaron Copeland to give the video a sense of national grandeur and yet to make it a “fanfare for the common man.” The McCain video is much more martial in its tone, helping to establish his toughness and military background. Here, the music tracks are in effect reversed. The Biden soundtrack captures a more forceful tone, while the Palin soundtrack is softer, more wistful. Palin’s music is being used to soften much tougher images and language, allowing her “feminine” side to emerge, even as we are trying to reconstruct the “strict father” model to include the prospect of a “hockey mom” who is like a “pitbull” in lipstick.

Biden and the Nuturing Parent Model

The opening story in this video is used to establish Biden’s toughness: “My Dad used the expression, ‘You don’t measure success on whether or not you get knocked down. It’s how quickly you get back up.’ Because everybody gets knocked down. The measure is in getting back up. That’s the measure of this country. It never failed to get back up.” It’s all here — the appeal to the father who is represented as tough-minded and who demands toughness in his son yet there’s also here the extension of that image to represent the country as a whole. In doing so, there is just a hint of Democratic “nurturing” in the suggestion that “everybody gets knocked down” and the question of what can be done to insure that everyone gets back up. Is this a test of individual character as the story begins or is it a test of the nation’s commitment to its most vulnerable members, as the ending hints?

The most compelling family images here center around Biden as a father: the story of him returning to his son’s bedside following the car crash that killed his wife and daughter and “he never left it.” Here, we see both a suggestion of protection against a harsh world but also the image of nurturing a child who has suffered an emotional loss. There is a strong emphasis throughout the video on the dedication that Biden feels as a father to his children — taking the train back home from Washington every night, always taking their call — as expressed through the testimony of his now adult son. And underlying this is the suggestion that Biden will be a dedicated father to the country. These scenes depend on a post-Feminist conception of the father not as a stern patriarch but as a mutual caregiver. And there’s that warm, fuzzy shot of Biden craddling his young grandchild in his arms, which gives us a vivid picture of his gentle side.

For me, one of the most interesting rhetorical moment here is Biden’s statement: “When you see the abuse of power, you’ve got to speak whether it is a parent slapping around a child or a president taking the nation to war that costs lives that wasn’t a necessary war. That’s an abuse of power.” The move from domestic violence to war, from family to nation, is breathtaking here. We can read the comment as a critique of the stern father model — suggesting that the stern father may also be an abusive father, may not adequately care for his children, may abuse his authority in demanding respect he has not earned. This passage appeals to Democratic anxieties about the patriarchal logic of the Stern Father model. But it also contains the explicit image of another kind of father who cares enough about those who are suffering to stand up to such bullies and defend the weak. Again, there’s just that hint of toughness here which adds some backbone to the images of the nurturing parent. We can also see this as connected with the other image of bullying in the video — the reference to the ways Biden’s classmates tormented him because of his stutter. In this formulation, Biden is someone who has endured pain and humiliation but learned how to stand up to bullies to defend others who might become victims.

Palin and the Strict Father Model

While the “nurturing parent” paradigm is gender neutral, reflecting the reconfiguration of responsibilities within the family and the kinder, gentler conception of the patriarch that it embodies, the “strict father” model gets defined along specifically masculine lines. Lakoff takes his inspiration from James Dobson and Focus on the Family, which sees men and women as playing different and complimentary roles within the family and sees the father as the head of the household. So, the construction of Sarah Palin within the terms of this discourse is a fascinating process. Much has been made among the GOP faithful about how she has retained her “femininity” even as she has broken into the “good Ol’ Boys network,” and the video must somehow suggest this without undercutting the core values the Party wants to attach to their candidates.

This contrast between the models has another implication. While Biden and Obama may stress their partnership, much as husbands and wives are life partners within the nurturing parent model, the Republicans clearly want to subordinate Palin to McCain without undercutting their need to build her up as having the authority and experience to take over from him as president should he die in office. Throughout, she is depicted as a junior version of McCain, as if she was taken from his rib. The opening language of the video, which lists various roles she plays, explicitly mirrors the opening list in the McCain video. McCain, “the original maverick,” (gee, I thought that was James Garner, the star of the 1950s western series, Maverick.), made an “astute choice” when he asked her to join him in Washington as his helpmate. And in the end, she’s described as “Alaska’s maverick” in contrast with McCain who is “America’s maverick.”

But, as others have noted, Palin is probably the most “rugged” Republican to be on a national ticket since Teddy Roosevelt, who also happens to be McCain’s own role model, and so the video wants to wrap her up with the “frontier” myth and thus link Alaska to a broader understanding of the American west. Much of this is carried by the persistent images of the great outdoors, which also serve to reinforce the hints here that she’s an environmentalist, although the kind that likes to shoot and skin moose as opposed to the “tree huggers” and “nature lovers” that Democrats are most often accused of being. Again, we see a form of environmentalism consistent with tough love rather than nurturing. Alaska, here, gains credit for being “the far corner of America,” where-as if we talked about Obama’s Hawaii in such terms, it would be seen as signs that he was “outside” the American “mainstream” and lacked “touch” with “heartland” values. The frontier myth is particularly strong when the video describes her family’s decision to move to Alaska: “attracted to Alaska by its unlimited promise and an environment suited to outdoor adventure.”

And of course, we can’t overlook all of the images here of Palin interacting with service men and women, including the Alaska National Guard, given the emphasis on military backgrounds running through the McCain video. This is another way that Palin gets associated with “strength” even as we are trying to emphasis her status as an average Mom who goes to PTA meetings. But then it’s worth stressing that military images appear far more often in the Biden video than in the Obama video, suggesting the ways that the Vice President is being used to increase the “toughness” of the Democratic ticket.

Reason‘s Jesse Walker has written a very cogent critique of Lakoff’s model, one which reflects upon how difficult it is to understand groups like Libertarians within the framework that it offers.