Iowa Caucus Narratives

I’ve been spending a lot of time this weekend thinking about my election-themed composition classes and my article on presidential campaign videos, and as a result, I’ve found myself increasingly immersed in and fascinated by the narratives that have spun out of this week’s Iowa caucuses. My interest in these narratives has been informed, in part, by reading Diane Rubenstein’s discussion of what she calls “the vernacular use of the American presidency” in her book, This is Not a President. But as I continue to think about videos produced both by voters and by campaigns, I’m becoming increasingly attentive to the ways in which many of these videos cohere to already existing representations of the candidates (the anti-Hillary “Vote Different” is a classic example). With that in mind, today’s Washington Post and New York Times columnists seem incredibly invested in reinforcing specific narratives about the major remaining candidates, particularly the Democrats.

First, the depiction of Obama’s Iowa victory has taken on almost improbable historical significance. To be sure, Eugene Robinson is correct to emphasize the palpable sense that “a page has been turned” regarding the question about whether or not the U.S. is “ready” for a black president, but I’m also interested in how Obama’s Iowa caucus win has been tied to a revised notion of patriotism. Perhaps the most explicit articulation of this storyline comes from Maureen Dowd, who argues that Obama’s supporters were “propelled by a visceral desire among Americans to feel American again.” I’ve touched on this point to some extent in talking about Obama’s victory speech, pointing out that his description of a “politics of hope” merges effectively with American narratives of progress (“they said this day would never come…they said this country was too divided”). More crucially, of course, Obama has been able to define himself against both Clinton and Bush, and it’s almost impossible not to read Obama’s invocation of change as much against the image of Hillary standing in front of a Democratic old guard (both Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) as against Bush himself. But all of the metaphors (turning the page, closing the book) about ending the Bush-Clinton saga say something more about the current moment in American history than anything purely “political,” especially given that Obama and Clinton hold relatively similar views on most political issues (as this “confession” of an undecided voter suggests).

Obviously, these metaphors of change, transformation, and reconciliation have a great deal of significance in shaping how we think not only about the upcoming election but also how we think about national identity, as well as about race, gender, and social class. In particular, some classic anti-Hillary metaphors re-emerged, namely the attempt to characterize her in terms of costuming or dress, with Robinson’s editorial in particular referring to “Hillary Clinton’s constantly shifting wardrobe of slogans,” a common and somewhat tired topic of discussion (especially the obsession with Clinton’s cleavage last fall).

But perhaps the most interesting attempt at spinning the Iowa results comes from arch-conservative George Will, who is so fearful of a Clinton, Edwards, or Huckabee presidency that he stopped just short of endorsing Obama, referring to the youngest candidate for president as “an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic ‘fights’ against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.” Will seems especially fearful of Huckabee’s populist appeal, his anti-corporate and anti-elitist message that has the audacity to point out that many average Americans are struggling financially, a struggle that Will seeks to dismiss with a single wave of decontextualized statistics. To be clear, I strongly disagree with the solutions offered by Huckabee (in particular, the so-called Fair Tax), but Will’s attempt to protect traditional conservatism from Huckabee’s populism is striking in its unapologetic elitism.

I’m not quite articulating what I find so interesting about these narratives, and it may be because they remain somewhat unresolved in my own mind, especially with the New Hampshire primaries only a couple of days away (at which point all of these narratives could be completely rewritten, as Broder’s pro-Obama “horse race” editorial suggests). I may have more to say in the next couple of days about how these narratives are realized in some of the more widely disseminated political videos, but with the new semester beginning on Wednesday (or Thursday in my case, thanks to a Tuesday-Thursday schedule), I’m not making any promises.

Update: Since this entry seems to be as much about collecting editorials that address the representations of the various presidential campaigns (and their intersections with popular culture), I’ll go ahead and point to a couple of others here.  Atrios pointed to this Chris Satullo editorial that reads (as Atrios observes) like a bad Maureen Dowd column.  Meanwhile, Jason reminded me that I wanted to revisit the TV Guide column where the candidates list their favorite TV shows (Obama’s citation of M*A*S*H as an all-time fave only adds to my enthusiasm for him).  Meanwhile, Huckabee’s professed distaste for David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees only makes me want to watch the movie again.


  1. Mo MoDo Said,

    January 6, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

    The word “explicit” is just perfect for Maureen Dowd’s column. I needed a cold shower after reading it. I think the Dowdster is in L-O-V-E.

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 6, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    I think you’re right, and you’re absolutely right to question some of the metaphors Dowd is using to express her love for Obama, um, her enthusiasm for his campaign (“smooth-jazz modernity,” “dropped his languid pose,” etc). Talk about an ObamaGirl.

    The Golden Girls reference to Hillary’s supporters is pretty telling, as well.

    Thanks for the comment and link.

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