The Public Eye: Framing the Election

By Bob Burnett
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:09:00 AM

Three months before the 2008 presidential election, we know the parameters of the contest. McCain’s fear campaign will be relentlessly negative. Both sides will spend obscene amounts of money. Roughly half the states will be in play. And, the frames will be simple: age, continuity and scope of vision. 

In political speak, “framing” means “constructing a schema of interpretation.” So, for example, we know that at 72 John McCain is old compared to Barack Obama. Old age can either be interpreted as a liability—decrepit, inflexible, out of touch—or an asset—mature, experienced, ready to lead. Similarly, when compared to McCain, 47-year-old Barack Obama is young, which can either be a liability— immature, inexperienced, wet behind the ears—or an asset—not part of the Washington establishment, energetic, thinks outside the box. 

McCain’s strategy is to make the election hinge upon age and claim Obama is not ready to become president. Rather than tout his own bona fides, McCain chose to go negative. He contends the Illinois senator is immature because he’s a flip-flopper, lacks substance, and is a manufactured celebrity—like Paris Hilton. The Arizona senator’s ads describe him as experienced, resolute, a known commodity, while Obama is portrayed as inexperienced, erratic, and unknown. At its starkest, the comparison is between McCain pictured as a strong, solid man and Obama depicted as a weak, inconsistent boy—a tactic that subliminally plays to racism. 

McCain’s negative ads have reduced Obama’s lead and made the race perilously close in swing states. Nonetheless, the Illinois senator’s relatively young age can be framed as a positive, serving as a stark contrast to “politics as usual” and a symbol that he represents all Americans, not just the rich and powerful. Obama should continue to tie McCain to George Bush and the Washington establishment, thereby arguing that McCain has the wrong kind of experience and has consistently shown bad judgment. However, Obama has to be careful not to personally criticize McCain, as this would reduce Obama’s appeal as a different sort of politician, and it would feed racism with images of a young black man berating an older white. Rather than age, Obama must emphasize character. 

Someone close to Obama, preferably his choice for vice president, needs to go after McCain’s character and depict his age as a liability. These attacks should point out the obvious: McCain deserves the label flip-flopper far more than Obama, as the Arizona senator has changed his position many more times. McCain should be called on both his distortions of Obama’s positions (“whoppers”) and his vapid positions on major issues (“deceptions”). Thematically, these charges can tie to a simple frame: McCain represents the old politics. 

Republicans will continue to circulate false charges against Obama, such as his being a Muslim. Democrats need to counter with their own attack ads: McCain is unstable, he has a terrible temper and he is an untreated victim of post-traumatic-stress-disorder. McCain, who married into millions, can be depicted as elite and out of touch. He doesn’t understand that regulating tire pressure improves fuel efficiency because he is always transported in limousines. Finally, McCain’s bona fides as a Christian can be questioned. He’s an unstable deceiver. 

Although the main 2008 frame will be age, two others will be used: continuity and scope. At a subliminal level, McCain is running with the Bush ideology. While the bulk of his advertisements have been negative, the few positive ads have emphasized neo-conservative themes: stronger military, weaker government, lower taxes and reduced entitlements. McCain’s position on Iraq, and on foreign policy in general, is to let the military decide what’s best. His answer to the budget deficit is to cut governmental services, under the pretense of reducing waste. His response to rising gasoline prices is to eliminate the gas tax and his response to the recession is to reduce corporate taxes. 

The Obama campaign can use McCain’s meager policy offerings as evidence that he represents failed Bush policies and that he’s tired: a 72-year-old geezer, lacking the energy to respond creatively to America’s challenges. 

The final political frame is scope: short-term focus versus long-term vision. Like that of most conservatives, McCain’s perspective is inherently tactical. His position on Iraq is governed solely by security gains attributable to the surge; he shows no consciousness of the continuing political morass. In contrast, Obama looks at the total picture and asks what is in America’s overall security interests. Looking at rising gasoline prices, McCain sees only the near term—drill everywhere and suspend the gasoline tax. Obama thinks strategically—we have to reduce our oil dependency and this can help alleviate our financial woes, reduce global warming, and improve America’s competitiveness. 

The fact that John McCain has decided to run a negative fear campaign doesn’t mean that Barack Obama has to stoop to the same level. But it does suggest the Illinois senator has to recognize the frames McCain is using and bend them to his own purposes. Over and over Obama has to state the obvious: McCain represents the old failed politics of George Bush, while Obama stands for meaningful change—he’s not a good old boy. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at