Wednesday, March 05, 2008

It’s 3 a.m. Why do you always call on me first?

In explaining Hillary Clinton’s victories Tuesday, pundits are looking at two campaign initiatives used by the Clinton campaign in the final week: the infamous "3 a.m. phone call" ad and Hillary’s complaint that she is always asked to respond to debate questions first.

Taken separately, (we’ll light-heartedly take them together later) each tapped into underlying visceral feelings. Remember, the last thing you want voters to do is actually think.

The 3 a.m. ad is the most obvious. The appeal is to fear, the stock-in-trade of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. In fairness, it is also strikingly similar to the famous Johnson daisy “countdown” ad used briefly against Barry Goldwater.

First, arouse fear, then have your candidate be the one who makes it all go away. There’s other stuff going on here. The ad’s creators chose 3 a.m. — the time we are most vulnerable. The hour we wake up from nightmares. Then there’s the whole implication that The White House is uncharted territory to Obama. Hillary, on the other hand, knows her way to the phone and the war room because she’s been there — never mind in what capacity.

The second initiative — Hillary’s complaint to media debate panels — plays on the public’s distrust of the press. It also raises the whole question of fairness and media bias. (And, yes, there is media bias, and audience bias, and individual bias etc.) “Media bashing” is one of the oldest ploys around. It always works. But her comment targets a deeper emotion common among women. (Imagine Obama, or any male candidate, complaining that he always gets called on second or first. Whiner!)

Women face the fairness issue repeatedly in situations controlled by men. The one that nearly every woman relates to is being a student in the classroom, where teachers (very often men) ask the questions. The old complaint was that the teachers never asked questions of females students. The attention was always focused on the males.

Clinton’s remark puts a twist on the female student experience. What she is really saying is “Why do you always give the guy the last word?” It is, in short, gender discrimination, and female students and women in the workplace have all experienced it.

So the ad invoked primal fears and the debate remark spoke to media bias and gender discrimination.

They worked in this segmented-messaged world.

But try this:

The National Security adviser is on the phone to President Hillary Clinton: “It’s 3 a.m, Madame President. Something terrible is happening in the world. We need a decision.”

The president: “Why do you always call on me first?”

Adviser: “Sorry, Madame President. I’ll give Vice President Obama a call.”

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