A Guide To Candidate Archetypes
There are plenty of wonks to give a rational analysis of the 2012 horserace, but I’m not one of them. I’m not a political scientist or any kind of scientist. Far from it. I’m an artist; emotion is my stock-in-trade.
As an exercise, I’m going to try to create a comprehensive list of political candidate archetypes, the way one might group fictional characters or a pantheon of mythological gods, with their strengths and weaknesses and examples from the current US Presidential race as well as the 2008 Presidential race, and examples from popular culture that act as a metaphor for each type.
Archetype 1: The Stern Parent
Appeal: Civility. They promise to promote a civilized society where one plays by the rules and the rules are fair. A world of civil rights and a social safety net instead of the ‘law of the jungle’.
Must guard against: Charges of promoting a ‘nanny state’ run by centralized planners who mistakenly think they know what’s best for everyone.
The Stern Parent makes it seem as if the whole world can be made into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but must guard against charges of promoting a Neighborhood of Make-Believe
2012 Exemplar: Barack Obama. One word – ‘Obamacare’.
2008 Exemplar: Hillary Clinton. She demonstrated an impressive knowledge of wonky details combined with a maternal image (and good ol’ Hillarycare).
Pop Culture Exemplar: Yoda in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Party advantage: None. Republicans are seen as too draconian or as stacking the deck in favor of the powerful, but Democrats are seen as promoting an overregulated nanny state.
Archetype 2: The Rock Star
Appeal: The ‘One’, after which they broke the proverbial mold. A unique, special person suited to the unique, special task of POTUS. A task of such importance can’t be left to a mere mortal.
Must guard against: Appearance of vanity. Like Right Said Fred, the Rock Star can seem to think they’re too ‘sexy’ for just about everything, including being President. Also, voters can be envious.
2012 Exemplar: Sarah Palin. She realized that actually having any responsibilities was getting in the way of her being a great leader.
2008 Exemplar: Barack Obama. Before he actually had to make tough decisions that would inevitably disappoint some people, supporters could project all their dreams upon him. Ironically, the McCain campaign tried to pin an image on him that turned out to be better exemplified by their thin-skinned self-absorbed VP candidate.
Pop Culture Exemplar: David Brent in “The Office” Obviously an example of the weakness of this type of candidate.
Party advantage: None. Republicans seem too superficial and insincere and Democrats too free-spirited and ‘hippie-dippy’ to lead.
Archetype 3: Black Ops
Appeal: They’re in the know so you don’t have to be. Gives the impression of being well connected in the world of espionage and military intelligence. You can trust them to have a secret plan to keep America safe.
Must guard against: Conspiracy theories. How do we know they’re not a sleeper cell Manchurian Candidate secret-Muslim/extraterrestrial from beyond the moon?
2012 Exemplar: Barack Obama. Incumbency has its privileges.
2008 Exemplar: John McCain. Navy Captain and 30 year Congressman. He’s been ‘in the loop’ for a while now.
Pop Culture Exemplar: Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Party Advantage: None. The Republican war on science and education makes it harder to associate them with the word ‘intelligence’ in any context, and Democrats can still be painted as anti-military, pro-Woodward-&-Bernstein bean-spillers.
Archetype 4: The Trail Blazer
Appeal: It’s all about the ‘moonshot’. The Trail Blazer has the bold vision that will take us to the next level of pushing the edge of the envelope of the bridge to the future… and, uh, Mars or something.
Must guard against: Have you ever seen that footage of NASA test rockets exploding? Metaphor!
2012 Exemplar: Newt Gingrich. He’s enraged by the low number of American States on the moon.
2008 Exemplar: John McCain. ‘Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.’ Because 2 wars wasn’t enough.
Pop Culture Exemplar: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Newt Gingrich would be way more popular if he were played by Harrison Ford.
Party Advantage: None. Apparently, Republicans can’t just explore space, they have make it safe for democracy! One gets the feeling that they’d take guns to Mars, just in case. And Democrats are pussies.
Archetype 5: The Domestic Infrastructurer
Appeal: Peace Through Strength. Although that was the pro-military buildup slogan of the 70s and 80s, I’m repurposing it to mean the peace of a prosperous and confident nation that comes from running like a well-oiled machine thanks to investment in domestic infrastructure both concrete (like, literally, roads) and more abstract (like economic stimulus and education).
Must guard against: Charges of ‘big government handouts’.
2012 Exemplar: Barack Obama. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Ambitions of high-speed rail, smart grids, green energy economy, etc.
2008 Exemplar: I don’t know. Joe Biden? He did talk about taking the train a lot.
Pop Culture Exemplar: WALL•E in WALL•E
Party Advantage: In theory, Republicans should have a slight advantage at this. Sure, it’s counter-intuitive in the age of a GOP that only wants to destroy, but there was a time when Republicans also created things like the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If they ever get back to backing up their patriotic platitudes with real investments, it could be a real strength for them. Until then, every time a Republican claims to love America, America should say back ‘Show me the money!’
Archetype 6: The Do-Gooder
Appeal: A great CV. Often a person’s positive qualities can take some uncovering and then still remain questionable. It’s nice when a person can wear their good on their sleeve. Takes the work out of figuring out if they’re good or not.
Must guard against: The top of a high horse is a precarious place. When one’s spotless virtue is used as a selling point, even normally acceptable blemishes become shameful disgrace.
2012 Exemplar: Barack Obama. As the incumbent, he’s actually had to live up to his campaign promises already. Or already failed to do so.Either way, while all the other candidates can run anti-Obama campaigns he has no choice but to run on being as great as he said he would be.
2008: Hillary Clinton. She entered the race as the party establishment favorite and had the most name recognition.
Pop Culture Exemplar: C.C. Baxter in The Apartment. He succeeds by helping his bosses, and likewise the President has to convince his bosses (the American people) that he’s worth keeping around.
Party advantage: None. The GOP field included successful and accomplished businessmen, statesmen, politicians, and authors, but none of them come off as caring about anyone other than themselves, while the President has one term’s worth of reality and its inevitable compromises, missteps, failures, and defeats to explain away.
Out of time for now. I’ll continue this list in the coming days. Have a couple dozen more archetypes in mind.