Political Conventions, Images, and Spin

Article excerpt

September 2, 2004

THE POLITICAL CONVENTIONS have not served any real substantive purpose in the democratic process for years.

By the time they roll around, we already know who the candidates of the two parties will be. The platforms of the parties often are made public before the events.

The conventions primarily serve two purposes: 1) to provide delegates with a big party, often on the dime of those companies and organizations that would like to buy influence and 2) to provide an opportunity on television to spin certain images and establish dominant themes.

Many general semanticists would consider most of these images and themes higher order abstractions, playing off the viewers' fears, assumptions, and projections.

This summer, the main imagery of both parties' conventions centered on which party best could provide strong leadership in the War on Terrorism. Both parties created spin intended to convince those in the middle of the political spectrum--wherever that might be--that their candidate could better fight that war. TV coverage not only bought into the imagery; it helped establish the images.

The Democrats put on a convention that looked like it could have been a VFW gathering. Military veterans were everywhere. They accompanied John Kerry to the convention and escorted him to the podium. Kerry started his speech with an emphatic salute, and said he was "reporting for duty."

It was an obvious attempt to gain some ground in what has traditionally been Republican territory--national defense.

The imagery became very clear. Kerry would be just as tough as, and much smarter, in the war on terrorism than George W. Bush. The images of supportive veterans, and Kerry's Vietnam War heroism, were meant to ease the fears of anybody concerned about national security under a Democratic administration.

Kerry, primarily known as a liberal during his long tenure in the Senate, was using his military background, and all the imagery the DNC experts could spin, to appeal to more conservative groups that supported the military.

The imagery didn't really match up with Kerry's voting record in the Senate. He often has opposed increased spending for the military, and in fact has a mixed voting pattern on funding for the War on Terror. He has questioned the wisdom of "going it alone" in Iraq.

A presumed unintended offshoot of this spin and imagery was that Kerry also opened himself up for the Swift Boat commercials, in which some vets who claimed to have served with him in Vietnam disputed his accounts and those of his supporters.

For at least a couple weeks, more media attention was paid to what happened 30 years ago than what Kerry would try to do as President. He slipped in the polls during that time.

Moderate, "Compassionate" Republicans

The Republicans knew their candidate already had the advantage of actually being a war-time President, but the concerns centered on two areas: 1) mixed poll results about Bush's handling of the Iraq war aftermath and 2) some polls that showed many of those potential voters in the middle considered the President too far to the right on other issues, such as health care, the environment, economic policy, gay rights, etc.

So, early in the convention, Senator John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Terminator-turned-California-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took to the podium. First Lady Laura Bush, who has favorable ratings in most opinion polls, spoke on the second night to relate the more compassionate side of her husband.

All had images of being more moderate than Bush on social issues, with appeal that crossed party lines. As one pundit put it, McCain, Giuliani and Schwarzenegger likely would not have been nominated by the more conservative delegates at the convention, but by having them endorse Bush's leadership against terrorism, they spun the image of a broader, farther reaching GOP. …