Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Nag of Tricks: Revelations About Kirk & Giannoulias Are Less and Less Substantive

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Nag, nag, nag. Mark Kirk wasn't obeying military regulations, he was politicking on Navy time. Nag, nag, nag. Alexi Giannoulias didn’t actually serve on the board of directors of the Community Bankers Association of Illinois, he was on a committee.

    Next we’re going to hear that Mark Kirk wore the American flag patch with the ensign facing backward on his uniform, in violation of military standards, and that Alexi Giannoulias' didn't wear regulation sneakers while playing for Panionios B.C.

    Unfortunately, the campaigns are giving us what we really need to make up our minds in this election: gossip and storytelling. I was once on a journalism panel where I was asked why the press was so preoccupied with tittle-tattle, rather than substantive issues. I asked the crowd how many of them had bought a copy of The New Republic. Then I asked how many had bought a copy of the National Enquirer. The Enquirer won.

    Political strategists know this, too, which is why they try to build narratives around their candidates’ -- and knock down their opponents’ public images. Mark Kirk has tried to present himself as a sailor/statesman, the only member of Congress since World War II who was brave enough to enter a combat zone. After a week of revelations about his military record, which began when the Giannoulias campaign leaked its oppo to the Washington Post, he was portrayed in a Sun-Times cartoon as a six year old in a military uniform.

    “A candidate’s personal story, whether captured in snapshots (Jack Kennedy, PT boat captain; Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Rider) or in a biography spanning decades (Bill Clinton, ‘The Man From Hope,’ per the 1992 video), and whether fully accurate or not, comes to define him or her,” wrote Sharon Begley in Newsweek. “The outsized power of the personal narrative today compared with even a generation ago (in 1980, Ronald Reagan ran not on personal narrative, but on hope and the promise of change) reflects something that has become almost a cliché in political analysis—namely, that emotions, more than a dispassionate and rational analysis of candidates’ records and positions, determine many voters’ choice on election day.”

    Under those circumstances, the Giannoulias campaign had to go after Kirk’s military record. Early on in the campaign, Kirk was extremely successful at defining Giannoulias’s public image as that of a callow young banker who made risky loans to organized crime figures, causing his family’s bank to default, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars. When that’s how the public thinks of you, the only way to win is to make your opponent look even worse. Giannoulias still has work to do. His “very unfavorable” rating is 23 percent, while Kirk’s is 15 percent.

    Kirk’s early attacks on Giannoulias determined this race would be about character, not issue. So expect to hear even more, and even pettier, tittle-tattle about each candidate. These guys are running out of things to criticize about each other, but they still have five months to go. And the press, from bloggers to the MSM, will only facilitate. There's a narrative now. You're invested, and so are we.

    It would be nice to see a better Senate campaign. But for that, we’d have to be better voters.