The panderers and seducers will spend eternity beaten, prodded and whipped by Lucifer’s lieutenants. –Dante Alighieri
All politicians pander. That is, they say or do what a certain constituency wants even though it’s not, as Webster’s puts it, “proper, good, or reasonable.” But how a presidential candidate handles the candor/pander continuum can be a deal-breaker or the royal road to the presidency.
In the 2008 race, Barack Obama learned to modulate his pandering after the blowback from what he presumed were off-mike comments to a liberal San Francisco audience — he said that some frustrated small-town Americans “cling to guns or religion” — handed Hillary Clinton and later John McCain a powerful talking point.
McCain, on the other hand, proved a pathetic panderer, beginning with the absurd pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate and continuing with a laundry list of positions that sucked up to one group or another. Nor did he learn much (if anything) from that pander disaster: Struggling against a far-right Senate primary challenge last year, McCain — who built his career in part by explicitly referring to himself as a maverick — produced a pander for the ages when he told Newsweek, “I never considered myself a maverick.”
Poor pandering may already have produced the first casualty of the 2012 campaign: Mississippi Governor Hayley Barbour, whose tone deaf comments to the conservative Weekly Standard — including that racism in his home state during the ’60s “wasn’t that bad” — provoked a firestorm he’ll have a hard time overcoming.
Early frontrunner Mitt Romney has spent the last four years approaching the Platonic ideal of the shameless panderer who, when expedient, adopts positions that are diametrically opposed to one another. Salon‘s Steve Kornacki does a fine job of following the erstwhile Massachusetts Governor’s mind-bending zig-zags on abortion rights here. More recently, Kornacki notes, Romney’s opposition to the START treaty had commentators groaning in disbelief.
(2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry committed a serious pander-overreach when he tried to appeal to anti- and pro-war voters simultaneously by arguing that, while he’d come to believe the Iraq War was wrong, he’d still have voted for it.)
Newt Gingrich’s meanness, hyperbole and inability to resist the sound of his own voice often combine to thwart the correct execution of the difficult “double reverse pander,” in which a candidate panders by falsely accusing his opponent of pandering. Last summer, in the heat of the “Ground Zero mosque” pseudo-story, Gingrich — pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment — linked president Obama to terrorism, saying “There is nothing surprising in the president’s continued pandering to radical Islam.” Newtie went on to insanely compare the proposed community center’s location to “putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.”
A few weeks later, Gingrich tried to lock up the non-Kenyan/colonialist vote, dubbing Dinesh Desouza’s argument (that the president espouses a Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview) “the most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama.”
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty entered the fray last week with a pander trifecta while on tour hyping his new autohagiography. First, he defended Sarah Palin’s candidates-in-the-crosshairs web graphic before the National Press Club. Then he told anti-gay activist Bryan Fischer’s hefty radio audience that he’d like to see a repeal of the repeal of DADT. He concluded the week with a self-contradiction on ABC’s This Week, saying he both opposed continuation of the debt ceiling — which would trigger a default — and favored legislation preventing default.
The most adroit panderer among leading Republican hopefuls has to be Mike Huckabee, who is apparently an actual, warm-blooded human. In general, Huckabee seems sincere, if misguided. So when he panders about, say, the Confederate flag to appeal to conservative Southern voters, one detects a slight wink and nod, as if he’s saying, “I don’t really believe this shit, but at least I believe in something.”
Which brings us around to Sarah Palin, a colossus of pander who transcends the bounds of the genre in a way that defies prose description and perhaps can only be hinted at in song.
As the 2012 race heats up, we’ll be tracking the candidates’ pander playbooks to ferret out the most interesting, egregious and hilarious suck-ups in what promises to be a season of pander-monium nonpareil.
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