Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Poser Factor: A Psychologist's Take on the Presidential Election

As the Presidential election grinds along, candidates periodically whine about their media coverage. The truth of the matter, however, is that--for the most part--the Presidential hopefuls get a free ride on their questionable views.

Consider: Clinton and Obama can propose with straight faces (and an unquestioning media) that the U.S. government--yes, the same government that brought us emergency management in New Orleans and escalating budget deficits--will effectively and efficiently manage our health care system. McCain intones that the American occupation of Iraq--yes, the one that started as a liberation and now dangerously overstretches the military--should morph into ongoing, de facto colonization. Credulous reporters get their quotes right and pass along his prescriptions.

No, it's pretty difficult to raise media ire with matters of policy. Let there be an issue of character, however, and the media pwnage is palpable. The most recent case in point was Clinton's portrayal of herself under fire on the Bosnia tarmac. It wasn't just that she was lying; at that point she was a poser. You know the kind: the ones who show up with their Hot Topic t-shirts du jour and suddenly become alt-rockers, goths, metalheads, what have you. Liars can be engaging; posers are just annoying. And the media doesn't suffer annoying fools gladly.

That's why reporters turned on McCain when he suddenly courted the religious right and embraced the once-reviled Bush tax cuts. This wasn't the maverick everyone loved; it was a conservative poser--and the conservatives knew it most of all.

Bush the draft avoider lands his aircraft on a destroyer and declares "mission accomplished"? Poser. Romney the Massachusetts moderate discovers the evils of immigration? Spitzer the righteous solicits services from the human traffickers he prosecutes? Posers all; bring on the media feeding frenzy.

So perhaps it's a sign of the topsy-turvy times that Obama's recent fortunes hinge on the desire that the American public will actually see him as a poser in the Wright church: a likable unifier who only sat in the pews to build his street cred with Chicago constituents. The possibility that it's not a pose--that it's part of a larger, consistent pattern of sincere disaffection with the country--well, that is worse than annoying. Love of country, like love of a spouse, loses more than credibility when framed as incessant calls for change.

Will we elect a poser? Will we elect someone we desperately hope is a poser? Only in an environment where such questions are possible could the Republican who solicited partnership with John Kerry, then the endorsement of George Bush, ride the "straight talk express" to his party's nomination.

There's no lack of hope--or audacity--in election 2008.