The “Presidential Agenda Election” of 2012

— Richard E. Vatz 

“In circumstances like that, there are efforts made, sometimes desperate efforts, to change the subject.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, claiming that Gov. Mitt Romney’s videotaped statement to the effect that 47% of the country is increasingly dependent on government is what the country should discuss, not the issue of President Obama’s support of redistribution of wealth.
     The 2012 presidential election, more than perhaps any election in history, will turn on what issue(s) acquire agenda status for the voting electorate of America, and perhaps only the voting electorate of swing states.

      Who determines what the issues are in a presidential campaign? Why is a topic such as the president’s non-secretly videotaped support of redistribution of wealth changing the subject from a legitimate one to an illegitimate one?

      For over 35 years I have argued in my field of Mass Communication and Communication Studies that persuasion (or rhetoric) is about 2 things: “agenda creation,” the competition to determine what persuaders and audiences discuss, and “spin,” trying to infuse interpretation, meaning and significance for audiences into the agenda made salient for them.

      This year’s election is the perfect application of this theory of persuasion. In my book, The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion, there is a 2012 cartoon by Ed Gamble of the King Features Syndicate in which a chap representing “Gay Groups” is sitting next to the president who is supporting “same sex marriage,” and the president says, “Let’s hope this evolves to be another issue that distracts voters from the economy.”

      The unemployment rate appears to be permanently mired in 8-plus percentage territory, or at least until the end of the current administration. The economy is disastrous. Foreign policy choices arguably threaten instability across the Middle East and north Africa and possibly allow a Iranian game-changer in the calculus of nuclear-armed countries and its geo=political consequences.

         So what issues have the Democrats tried to substitute for the economy on the national agenda? Mitt Romney’s unreleased tax returns, Todd Akin’s ignorant superstition that a “legitimate” rape cannot result in pregnancy; the fiction that Gov. Romney’s policies at Bain Capital led to a woman’s death; the alleged Republican “War on Women,” Gov. Romney’s claim that he has an uphill climb to receive the votes of beneficiaries of government largess and other even less significant matters.

      In a recent USA Today interview, Gov. Romney said, intriguingly enough, “There are plenty of weaknesses that I have, and I acknowledge that, but the attacks that have come have been so misguided…[and] have been so dishonest that they surprised me. I thought they might go after me on things that were accurate that I’ve done wrong, instead of absurd things.”

      It is the essence of political persuasion: make the topic you want salient, salient…and try to de-emphasize topics that redound to your detriment.

     This has been done before in presidential elections, but never so preposterously or clownishly, and it has never been so effective, except maybe in 2004, but even then the Bush Administration met opposing arguments on seminal issues head-on while focusing somewhat on Sen. John Kerry’s war record and alleged flip-flopping.

      Much of the media have a critical role in helping to determine with what issues they confront candidates, and the Democratic agenda seems in large part to be fine with them, perhaps because personal attacks are less complicated than economic and foreign policy analysis.

      This election will concern, as all do, the interpretation of issues, but first and foremost it is an election concerning what is the presidential election agenda.

      The short shrift given to the inarguably important agenda of economic and foreign policy issues constitutes a rhetorical victory for those favoring a non-substantive American presidential election.

Professor Vatz teaches political communication at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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