Barack Obama has framed the debate in a way that can win the election: solving problems.
In the wake of John McCain's 'pig' ploy scandal, I wanted to draw attention to a new frame that is taking shape at break neck speed in the debate.
I call this the 'Solve Real Problems' frame and it has the potential to set the stage for Democrats to win the election.
Sometimes, people think of framing in Presidential elections as a tug of war. We set our frame, they set theirs--whichever side pulls the hardest wins.
In fact, the more accurate metaphor is that of a chess game. Each side sets out to establish a broad, opening frame, but through a series of middle ground debates, the election ultimately arrives at an end frame--a final, compelling way to re-establish one side's opening frame, and which ultimately captures enough people's imagination to win the most votes.
In 2004, we saw this when Bush's 'Ownership Society' emerged as the 'It's Your Money' frame.
'Solve Real Problems' is a pragmatic end frame emerging right now (for a full discussion of 'pragmatism' see the conclusion of Outright Barbarous). If activists recognize it and push it hard, we have the potential to turn the gains in this campaign into an election victory in November.
Opening Frames: 'American Dream' and 'Hope'
The 2008 election started out with multiple competing frames from Democrats and Republicans. The largest opening frames, however, came from the Clinton campaign and the Obama Campaign.
From the start, Clinton set the idea of restoring the 'American Dream,' and idea that was fundamentally economic. During the course of the primary, Clinton arrived at a new way to express her opening frame by talking about 'the invisible.' It was a very convincing idea, particularly as the economy went south. Despite the ideological statements of the Republicans, a majority of Americans felt that the economy had left them behind and that nobody cared about their troubles. The 'American Dream' frame became 'the invisible' and Hillary Clinton won millions of votes as a result.
The Obama campaign offered a different opening frame in the idea of 'Hope.' In many ways, 'Hope' was a much stronger frame than 'American dream' because it spoke to larger questions about the future of the country as a whole. By talking about 'Hope,' Obama was talking about American idealism beyond the mechanics of building family wealth. 'Hope' was also a more forward looking frame because it implicitly acknowledged new challenges that Americans face--such as global warming, conservation, technology, international interdependence, and so forth. The 'American Dream,' was more nostalgic. The problem with 'Hope' as we discovered in the primary, was that it was difficult to re-emphasize in terms of the economy when that became the key issue in the primaries. The middle ground framing of 'more people participating' that was so successful for Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, became less successful for his campaign in Pennsylvania. The better frame in idealistic terms, 'Hope' did not readily present a way to ground that idealism in the concrete issues that contingency was forcing into the election.
Obama won the nomination, but the sense coming out of that long contest was that he was left with a very big challenge of finding an economic foundation for his 'hope' frame. And even by the time of the DNC, it did not seem like that new frame had emerged quite yet.
McCain's 'Warrior' becomes 'Culture War'
In the aftermath of the RNC and the firestorm surrounding the nomination of Sarah Palin, the McCain campaign made it clear that they had no real middle ground frame to advance their opening 'warrior statesman' frame that they had unrolled early in the Republican primary.
Instead of unrolling a new frame that re-emphasized some aspect of McCain's militaristic logic, the McCain camp used the RNC to revert back to other Republican framing efforts that sought to frame 'conservative' in terms of 'small town values.' As a result, the McCain campaign went into the RNC pushing a strong militaristic theme, but they emerged pushing most of the old framing associated with the 'culture war.' The theme of 'war' remained, but with Sarah Palin on the ticket, the idea of a military warrior had officially given way to the old concept of a social or cultural warrior.
The key sign that this new middle ground had eroded the gains made by McCain's early framing were obvious. Suddenly, the media was obsessing over topics like Sarah Palin's church, pregnancy and abortion, and book censorship. All of these topics emerged at some point in the pre-convention primary, but they were always overshadowed by the McCain campaign emphasizing 'experience'--by which they meant 'military experience in a time of war.'
The culmination of the RNC framing switch happened this week when the McCain campaign accused Obama of 'sexism.' Many people hear this and they get confused because they think that this kind of attack is similar to late 1980s critiques of sexist language by liberals. In fact, it has nothing to do with that liberal thinking. Calling Barack Obama a 'sexist' was the first attempt by the McCain campaign to re-emphasize their new 'culture war' frame that they set in the RNC.
Right after the accusation of 'sexism,' McCain unleashed an ad accusing Obama of wanting to force young children to learn about sex in school--the familiar 'liberal debauchery' frame used for a decade by right-wing pundits to develop the 'culture war' frame.
'Hope' Becomes 'Solve Real Problems'
What is fascinating about McCain abandoning his initial 'warrior' frame for the older 'culture war' frame is not just the high level of smears and cynicism it introduced into the media, but what new language it sparked in the Obama camp.
Right from the start, the reaction to the 'culture war' framing from McCain was not to fight on the 'culture war' grounds, but (1) to accuse the McCain campaign of telling 'lies,' and (2) to emphasize that the McCain camp was impeding a more important conversation about 'solving real problems.'
Now, in general, the first step did not make much sense on its own in terms of framing for one Presidential campaign to accuse another Presidential campaign of telling 'lies.' To take that route is not really framing so much as announcing that there is a campaign (e.g., it's like saying 'I disagree with my opponent's campaign against me.'). But, when connected to the second step, it did make sense. By defining the McCain 'culture war' attacks as 'lies,' the Obama camp deflected those points and stepped immediately into the act of re-stating their opening 'hope' frame in new terms germane to the moment: 'solve real problems'
In one sense, 'solve real problems' is just old fashioned American pragmatism. In a much more profound sense, however, 'solve real problems' is a restating of the initial themes of the Obama campaign, but in quantitative, rather than qualitative terms.
Keep in mind that one of the initial themes of the Obama campaign is the transcendence of party allegiance in favor of facing solutions that we all face--a basic 'unity' frame. Also keep in mind that one of the obstacles the Obama camp faced after the Democratic primary was an inability to connect with voters primarily concerned with economic issues--primarily taxes.
Suddenly, following a week of relentless 'culture war' attacks form the McCain campaign, the entire media is shifting to a new line of discussion: the idea that these attacks from the McCain campaign impede the pragmatic conversation about getting things done.
Conclusion: Pragmatism is a Fundamentally American Idiom
As for the McCain campaign, having invested 100% of his framing in the old 'culture war' concept--particularly by his nomination of Sarah Palin--McCain has embraced ideological attacks over pragmatic problem solving. And from now until November, if McCain continues to re-emphasize the 'culture war' frame, by the debates the electorate will be so tired of squabbling over cultural issues that they will be clamoring for discussion of 'real' problems and 'real' concerns.
What I emphasize in the conclusion of Outright Barbarous, and what I also see in this phase of the 2008 Presidential election is a re-voicing of 'pragmatism' as a central concern amongst American voters. Pragmatism--a desire to understand and 'solve real problems'--is always present in the minds of Americans, but it quickly gets buried by violent and salacious rhetoric in the debate. Now that pragmatism is upon us again, and Democrats would be smart to see it, and really run with it from now until November. 'Solve real problems' is not just a theme du jour in the media. It is the core America worldview and the full realization of the early framing of the Obama campaign. It is the rhetorical path to victory for Democrats in November.