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A Hypothetical Problem

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Monday, Sep 17, 2007
The polls say that 99% of people who read this story will be fascinated by it. A further 25%, if they re-read the story in a week's time will be equally impressed.

By Aaron McKain.


“Here’s where they stand in Iowa”: Obama: 27, Clinton: 26, Edwards: 26, Richardson: 11, Biden: 2, Kucinich: 2, Dodd: 1, Gravel: “no support registered.”


A poll is a fairly shady way to kick-off a presidential debate. But it’s a shadiness that’s become more or less standard operating procedure: we trot the candidates out on stage, they stand with aw-shucks grins, and they continue to stand and grin while the moderator reads 5/8s of them their political death rites. On this particular morning in Des Moines (August 19, 2007), it’s ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos doing the honors, alerting the audience to the percentage of surveyed Iowans—those first-line gatekeepers of the American presidency—who “if the Democratic Caucus were being held today” would throw their support behind given candidate X. Twenty-four weeks before the Iowa Caucus, the poll is a strange bit of statistical speculation. Broadcast six minutes before a televised debate, the poll may cross the line between strange and outright bumfight cruel, particularly when it forces a genuinely decent old crank like Mike Gravel to smile-squirm through the announcement of his zero percent approval rating.


But pointing out this strangeness—the polls, the debates, the news-media’s hand in either—is decidedly Stale Old News, not worth a yawn or the time it takes you to scroll down. This is the quixotic dilemma of any attempt to quote-unquote “critically analyze” presidential politics: everyone already knows that the campaign is a glorified horserace, and everyone already knows that this horserace, like anything else worth anything in this world, is a wee bit totally jury-rigged. Moreover, for any bona fide campaign junkie, anyone truly addicted to the jockeying and braying, hinting at the bunkness of our nation’s electoral ritual goes beyond banal and bumps-ass into outright betrayal. It’s like telling your six-year-old nephew that pro-wrestling is fake: it doesn’t make the kid feel any better, it doesn’t make it any easier to body slam 550lbs of pituitary anathema, and it doesn’t necessarily explain a better way of picking an Intercontinental Heavy Weight Champion. This is what my friends who can’t believe I still watch the stuff—politics, not wrestling—don’t get. And it’s why all the recent brouhaha about hypotheticals (you were wondering when I’d get to them, no?) is such a slap in the face to all of us still foolish enough to watch the contest.

For those at least smart enough to tune out the pageant during high summer, here’s the catch-up. Sometime around August, the politicos decided that going after Sen. Obama for his willingness to answer hypothetical “what if?” questions would be a capital-g Good Idea, a strategy smart enough to win over voters, including those crucial Iowa Caucus-goers. Calling bullshit on an opponent’s willingness to engage in a mode of questioning, rather than their actual answers to specific questions, is a stupendously odd (albeit ancient) rhetorical strategy. That Obama’s rivals are even trying it is a testament to the bind they’re in. The “hypothetical” stances the Senator from Illinois has carved out—he would meet with the Axis of Evil, he wouldn’t nuke Iran, he would pursue al-Qaeda in Pakistan with or without Gen. Musharraf’s support—are all popular positions for the mainstream left, and if your opponent is able to articulate popular positions whenever they open their mouth, then that’s a mouth you need to find a way to shut. Attacking hypotheticals could, hypothetically, accomplish this.


Unfortunately for Obama’a challengers, convincing voters that hypotheticals are dangerous (and thus off-limits like chokeholds and piledrivers) is a hard argument to sell in a soundbyte. On the stage in Des Moines, the candidates’ delivery of the anti-hypothetical argument is not only miserably club-footed (Clinton: “we shouldn’t use hypotheticals, words do matter”; Edwards: “as a president, I wouldn’t talk about hypotheticals”; Richardson: “this talk about hypotheticals is what’s gotten us into trouble”) but it also foregrounds why the critique is counter-intuitive in the first place. As John Dickerson has pointed out in Slate, presidential campaigns are comprised of a series of hypotheticals (in the Iowa debate, what-ifs about troop pull outs, sovereign partitions, oil revenue, health care, and whether Clinton has a snowball’s chance of winning) all in the service of an over-arching hypothetical (“if I am elected…”) that provides voters precisely the information they most desire (i.e., what is this ego-freak going to do once we make them the Most Powerful Person on Earth?). Hypotheticals are also on the spot gut-checks, glimpses into a would-be leader’s instincts and reasoning and gauges of whether they share our common sense of the world. To voters, hypotheticals will always feel more People’s Elbow than low blow, and it would take a lot—and a lot of specific lots—to persuade them that this populist crowd favorite needs to be kept out of the ring.

Which is not to say that hypotheticals aren’t potentially dangerous. Obama’s comments re: Iran and Pakistan referenced ongoing, nuanced (well, ongoing at least),undeniably non-hypothetical diplomatic efforts. Richardson and Clinton are half-right when they warn that in these circumstances “[w]ords do matter” because words can matter, particularly when they are that explosively magical combination of the right words and the right person saying them, an equation which becomes highly probable when the person saying those words has a fair shot at being The Next President of the United States of America. Candidate Reagan learned this lesson on the campaign trail in ’80 when he slipped-up and announced his support for Taiwan while his vice-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was in China pimping for the opposite policy. (In political science circles, this is what is known as being taken for a ride on Space Mountain”). The Chinese, like Musharraf, were beyond displeased. But this is the cost of doing campaign business in the democratic open-air. To refuse to ever pay this price, to deny hypotheticals across the board—or even hint at such a thing in a desperate fit of political stratagem—is to turn all campaign discourse into vanilla stump speech mush.


Of course, the other entity with words and the juicy gravitas to make them matter is ABC News. And the sick spit in your eye irony—conveniently lost on everyone beating this hypothetical story into the ground—is that if candidate hypotheticals are dangerous, news/pundit hypotheticals are doubly so. The ever-present horserace question, “If the election were today, would you vote for this candidate?” is the ultimate campaign hypothetical and this speculative staple of our political diet finds its numerical, quasi-scientific legitimation in The Poll. The poll has pull, the sort of news-muscle that determines who gets to the chance to compete to be elected and thus what actually happens to Musharraf or Tehran. The poll is what gives the voters, to quote Rep. Kucinich’s sound-with-bite, a “conditioned choice,” letting ABC tell those all-important Iowans that an eight person scramble with six months to go is a really just a three-way race. (And it’s what justifies ABC’s use of debate questions that ensure the race stays that way; e.g., asking Obama to respond to Richardson responding to Biden responding to Dodd responding to Clinton responding to Biden’s statement that Obama isn’t experienced enough to be president.)  The survey hypothetical is what has preserved Hilary Clinton’s frontrunner status for nearly two years, which is four times longer than JFK’s entire primary campaign. And it’s what reduces Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson, Biden, and Gravel to jobbers, punching bags thrown in the ring only to make the company favorites look good.


All of which is still State Old News, a Yawnfest ostensibly beneath comment or contempt. But candidates working the refs by crying hypothetical to the ABC oddsmakers makes this Old News a little more than this political junkie can bear; it dances too close to the flame and pretends to not feel the heat. It’s Ric Flair, all 243 shambling, greased-up pounds of him, stopping the match and turning to the cameras to say “hey, I think that punch was fake.” We already know we’re suckers for watching; don’t rub our faces in it.

Tagged as: media | politics | polls
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