Creating Campaign Narratives

Herewith, the first in a series on political campaign rituals, being performed as I speak and you read. We will begin with the campaign narrative. Every campaign, for every office, no matter how lowly, has one.

In Illinois’ 8th congressional district, last week, incumbent Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh complained that his Democratic opponent, McKinley High School and University of Hawaii graduate Tammy Duckworth, retold her story of military service in Iraq far too often.

“I’m running against a woman,” Walsh told a friendly crowd, “who I mean, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, the men and women who served, that’s the last thing in the world they talk about.”

Duckworth denied that her experience piloting a helicopter in Iraq was “all she talks about.” But if it were, it would be understandable. Duckworth’s Black Hawk helicopter was hit by insurgent rocket fire.

She lost both of her legs, and she will carry a damaged right arm around for the rest of her life.

Every political candidate has a story to tell, and if it includes military service that service will be advertised. In both of Hawaii’s congressional districts, candidates are listing their military service at the top of their list of qualifications for office: Republican Charles Djou in District 1 and Democrat Tulsi Gabbard in District 2.

And well they should. In a nation that insists on policing the world – fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, flying drones throughout the Middle East, threatening boots on the ground here, boots on the ground there, boots shifting across the Pacific – voters should listen carefully to any candidate whose boots have walked America’s dusty global beat.

But not all campaign narratives are martial. More often, they offer a story that will appeal to the largest number in the electorate. Consider Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, for example. She talks about her mother, who escaped an abusive husband in Japan, came to Hawaii virtually penniless, and reared her children as a single mother. Hirono speaks of her mother’s courage and the lessons she learned from her about living honorably whatever your economic situation.

Hirono critics moan, “There goes Mazie again, hiding behind her mother’s skirts again.” Huh? Every candidate in America’s or Hawaii’s history who’s had an up-from-adversity story to tell has told it. Nationally, it’s as old as the Republicans’ campaign for “Abe Lincoln the Railsplitter!” in 1860.

Locally, Jack Burns, George Ariyoshi, and Ben Cayetano all exercised the Hawaii Democratic Party patent on a slick, thirty-minute film, entitled, had they been faithful to the details of their up-from-adversity message, “The Kid from Kalihi, Parts I, II, and III.” Mazie’s film, sure to debut later this campaign season, will simply be a single-mother’s riff on a more than 40-year-old Hawaii campaign narrative.

But a compelling story you must have. If you don’t, the press or opponents will provide the story for you.

Consider poor Joe Walsh of Illinois. Less than a year after Walsh had won his congressional seat, the press reported that Walsh was $117,437 behind in child support to his ex-wife for their three children. Walsh’s spin on it? Barack Obama’s economic recession made it impossible for him to pay, but it helped him understand the plight of America’s poor.

Every campaign has a narrative, and Duckworth’s is picked to win in Illinois’s 8th District on Nov. 6.