<— except with different words
Liberals have been complaining for a long time that political battles tend not to come down to the matters of logic and fact and policy on which liberals are most confident they prevail. Often people from both parties will take this as a given. You can run a liberal genius against a shruggy, poorly informed guy stands up and says he believes in God and family and guns to protect said family, which incidentally requires a mom and a dad and not two of one or the other, that’s just weird and gross, etc.—and plenty of people will completely rationally vote for the latter, because that is the guy they agree with. Not about logic and policy, but about what the world looks like now and what they want it to look like in the future and what team they’re on concerning those things.
Meghan McCain’s main purpose as a public figure has been to represent the Republican party on a really specific rhetorical level, and it’s obviously not the level of fact and policy; there are much more competent wonks and fibbers to cover those things. It’s not on the level of those populist “values” issues, either. It’s been on the level of sheer public-relations identification: her purpose is to go out and argue to the public that she is young and charming and enjoys music, and when she thinks seriously about politics she identifies with the Republican party. She is clad 24/7 in a rhetorical t-shirt that says “This Is What a Republican Looks Like.” She is an agent of rebranding, a snazzy new ad for a product that hasn’t actually been retooled. And there is no doubt in my mind that she understands and embraces this role. (What young music-loving Republican woman wouldn’t relish a chance to help dispel the idea that people like her Just Aren’t Republicans?) You can tell she understands it, because she annoys media folks by declining to actually say much of substance; she knows very well that that is not her job.
Over at doublex.com, Noreen Malone winds up likening this to cheerleading. That may be accurate. Then again, how is it unusual? It seems like it would require some significant double standards to aim that criticism at McCain and not aim it equally at, say, RNC chairman Michael Steele, who spends a good portion of his time doing the exact same kind of rhetorical work, the exact same method of rebranding: say, for instance, making increasingly comical efforts to convince young people and minorities that the GOP speaks their language. This work isn’t done on the level of logic or policy or anything that’s inside the product; like all efforts to market things to young people, it assumes that substance is completely secondary to look and style and speech. (Thus did Steele waste a chunk of his week changing the name of his web column to “What Up?” and then “Change the Game”; he believes in that thing conservatives used to criticize political correctness for, the idea that changing the way you speak can change reality.) You could argue that someone like Steele has more substantive control over the game he’s playing, but I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes—apart from making his efforts feel less convincing and McCain’s feel more authentic.
The only places Republicans have ever been good at this game are college campuses, where it’s a lot easier to make breaking liberal orthodoxy look hip.
And then this week Meghan McCain, accidentally or not, played her rhetorical role perfectly, throwing a photograph on Twitter that is, if anything, astoundingly normal: a young woman taking a casual digital picture of herself in a mirror with her head tilted to precise effect and her breasts artfully emphasized and a little of that sly mouth thing every girl in America is apparently taught to do in pictures starting at age 14, and oh by the way here’s this book I’m reading; I’m just showing you the book. A MySpace photo. (The photo is not included here because pay attention.) And then everyone talks about it, and McCain gets a little touchy about it, and …
And then I ask you: how is this not sort of a rhetorical grand slam? A casual, effortless smash? The entre of a young Republican woman into the sort of saucy-photo kerfluffle normally associated with young pop stars, and looking enviously good doing it: how is that not a piece of the kind of rebranding Steele sits up worrying over? Malone’s piece is titled “How Meghan McCain is manipulated by the media,” but that dynamic seems incomprehensible. McCain has done her job (i.e., doing exactly what people her age do all the time anyway), under the correct aegis (her name and her party affiliation), and gotten the result her public life was intended to get: some tiny brushstroke of youth or sex appeal or vivaciousness over the patina of the Republican party. “This Is What a Republican’s Chest Looks Like.”
She might not see it that way. Just like all the rest of us, she probably overestimates the value of her substantive opinions and underestimates the rhetorical importance of what she does on Twitter. But that was the whole idea—to be just like a whole lot of people, only Republican. Let’s not act as if McCain’s breasts alone are big enough to stand in for a whole grasping, ongoing, and generally failing Republican tactic here, the desperate rush to milk some youth credibility out of something; they’re just the one instance that didn’t come off looking silly. And if she gets annoyed that everyone’s talking about it or criticizing her, she’s just doing her job even better. A job no more bankrupt or cheerleadery than those of any men who sit in board rooms trying to map out something she can just do.