Danish Eyes Behold American Politics

In my troll through the European-press Net today for something interesting in reaction to Hillary Clintons’ speech to the Democratic National Convention of early this morning (CET), I made it through quite a bit of the French and the Danish but didn’t really find any sort of contrary view or interesting perspective to pass on. I guess the key to judging the New York senator’s performance was listening and watching very closely to spot any signs of left-over rancor or half-heartedness in the support for Barack Obama that she was professing for herself and urging all Democrats to share, and no doubt that sort of analysis is always best left to those closely sharing both her American English idiom and cultural background. The coverage I looked at basically swallowed her professions of loyalty hook, line, and sinker – and who knows, maybe she did really mean it – although I did discover the French equivalent of her new tag line “No way, no how, no McCain.” It’s D’aucune façon il ne faut McCain – and for once, my friends (as the presumptive Republican candidate himself would put it), I have to admit that the French language comes up second-best in the hard-hitting slogan department.

(Oh, and why French and Danish today? Just following this weblog’s general modus operandi, i.e. because I felt like it, although I also had a sense of not having discussed anything French or Danish lately and wanted to re-balance things a bit.)

However, I did run across an interesting piece by Johan Vardrup, the reporter sent to Denver by the well-respected Danish daily Berlingske Tidende, entitled Republicans hold happy hour for Hillary. From its very first line in the lede (“What won’t one do to fish for votes?”) you get a clear-cut sense of Vardrup’s attitude here: Damn, these Americans truly play some electoral hardball!

The subject here is the Happy Hour for Hillary staged on Monday by the Republican Party, staged in Denver of course, in fact just about as close as they could find a suitable place to the Pepsi Center where the Democratic convention is going on. And although it turned out that the eponymous guest of honor never showed up – despite the open offer of a free beer, as Vardrup notes – the point was really to offer a congenial forum for those of her supporters still not ready to support Obama, even to the point of considering voting for McCain (one of which, a certain Debra Bartoshevich, has already done a campaign ad for McCain, although Vardrup does not mention this in the article). In point of fact, Clinton through her spokesperson made it clear that she did not recommend that this “Happy Hour” be included in any Democratic delegate’s convention itinerary. Reactions that Vardup tracked on an on-line pro-Hillary discussion forum ranged from regarding this Republican move as a friendly gesture to calling it outright manipulation.

Man Who Knows Too Much = Presidential Loser

Moving on within the Danish press, I naturally called upon my favorite Danish observer of American affairs, Paul Høi and his weblog (off the Berlingske Tidende site) American Conditions. He hasn’t quite yet filed a reaction to Hillary’s speech yet – or indeed to the Democratic convention in any respect (wise man!) – but nonetheless his column of yesterday offers a “home run” of an insight into American politics. It’s entitled Stupidity, and perhaps it’s best to skip first to the very end of the piece for a summary of his point: “My rule of thumb: The man who knows too much is always eliminated in spy novels, and the same is true – whether one likes it or not – in American presidential elections.”

The thesis is simple: Americans want as their president not somebody manifestly above-average intellectually – i.e. superior to most of them – but rather about as smart as they are themselves. From Høi’s calculations, this explains the winner in (almost) all presidential elections since the Second World War, and it also explains the lamentable state to which the McCain-Obama campaign debate has already sunk at this relatively early point. Of course that debate need have nothing actually to do with the issues! It’s far more important for victory to succeed in painting your opponent as someone “elite” – “who eats brie and sips Chardonnay,” as Høi recalls was George H.W. Bush’s description of the cartoonist Gary Trudeau once his depiction in “Doonesbury” while he was president started to grate.

Høi is honest enough to admit that this viewpoint is hardly original with him. Early in his piece he refers to a 1999 article by Jonathan Chait advancing much the same argument in the New Republic, “Why America Loves Stupid Candidates,” which was accompanied by a crackerjack drawing of candidate George W. Bush with a dunce’s cap. But this pattern allegedly holds true all the way back to the 1948 surprise victory by Harry Truman over Thomas Dewey, with only one exception that Høi is willing to admit of, that being John F. Kennedy (who, we’ll recall, barely won the 1960 election and indeed might have gained crucial electoral support from the residents of several Chicago-area cemeteries). Jimmy Carter? He positioned himself as a simple peanut farmer from Plains, GA, while in 1992 Bill Clinton took care to don a working-class, “salt-of-the-earth” mantle (as Hillary did also this year, Høi admits). The 2000 election was naturally a classical manifestation of this syndrome: quite apart from any claims to have invented the Internet (generally manufactured by his detractors), just making clear to people how thoroughly he understood it was a grievous blow to Al Gore’s candidacy. (In this connection, here’s a bonus tidbit from the article: in Danish they actually have a word for “nerd,” – it’s nørd!) And we all have had almost eight years to get to know George W. Bush very well indeed, the second set of four largely thanks to the allegedy very “French” John Kerry.

And Your “Joe Sixpack” Winner Is . . .

So which of the current candidates is likely to benefit most from this underlying dynamic? Høi thinks it will be McCain, whom he terms clearly “the most anti-intellectual” of the two main candidates. True, true, McCain has appeared far more often on “The Tonight Show,” “The Daily Show,” etc. (not to mention in a movie), and is a far, far richer man than Barack Obama – but there you go again resorting to logic, my son, forgetting that we’re talking about American politics here! All of John McCain’s money really doesn’t enter into the equation, since according to Høi what matters is not finances per se but rather demonstrating a proper non-elitist attitude – i.e. that you’re just another “Joe Sixpack.” (Another linguistic bonus here: “Joe Sixpack” in Danish is mulde-Jens, from muld meaning “sod”!) The Obama campaign recently has belatedly recognized and started to fire back on this front, such as with the ads riffing off of John McCain’s inability to remember how many houses he and Cindy have, but Barack Obama might be fatally disadvantaged here – after all, he won scholarships to top universities, and even became editor of the Harvard Law Review. And so, as ever, the American electorate might again wind up with a president reflecting them most broadly – perhaps the president they truly deserve.

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