Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What’s in a Name?

One of the favorite games of political pundits is playing with the names of candidates. Candidates are perceived to have a greater, or lesser, appeal because their name sounds sufficiently stentorian when rolling off the tongue. Oddly enough, this is a hobbyhorse that has survived the election of one Barack Hussein Obama to some minor federal offices.

Some serious academic attention has been given to the so-called “ballot order effect,” which supposedly gives some marginal advantage to candidates whose alphabetical priority places them at the top of the ballot (usually in the primary; general election ballots are usually ordered by party). The results are far from certain, but there seems to be some small advantage to being the son of Mr. Aaron or Mr. Adams. The more imprecise efforts of the chattering classes to fathom the depths of a name’s “sound” are sometimes thinly-veiled efforts to favor those of us whose names are more Anglo-Saxon. Or, depending on the locale, more or less Jewish, Irish, or German. One “oops” moment in the 2004 Kerry campaign came when it was learned that presumed Boston Irishman John Forbes Kerry was in fact Jewish. His denials of knowledge that his grandfather had been born as Friedrich Kohn in Moravia gave Bush boosters a twofer: they could flag Kerry to the anti-Semitic vote, while pretending only to question his veracity.

The “American” ring of a (usually) Anglo-Saxon name (or the “un-American” sound of an opponent’s) has had apparent consequences. In one noted instance, the 1988 election for Democratic Party Chairman in Harris County (Houston) Texas, incumbent chairman Larry Veselka, a little known lawyer and activist, lost out to the more melodiously-named Claude Jones in a low profile race. Problem was, Jones was a groupie-supporter of perennial candidate and eternal fruitcake Lyndon LaRouche. (The local Party committee promptly amended the bylaws to strip the chair of all power and authority.) Local Democratic leaders uniformly blamed the name factor for Jones’s otherwise inexplicable win.

All of this contemplation, however, is not what gave birth to this post. What got me thinking about names was this week’s fundraising missive from the Obama for America Committee. Something about that name sounded slightly off-key, and it took a few minutes for me to realize what it was. Where is the Vice President’s name??

In 1984, the official effort to inflict four more years of Bonzo government was named the “Reagan-Bush ‘84 Committee.” In 2004, Americans (may have) voted for a narrow margin in favor of the campaign mounted by “Bush-Cheney ‘04 Inc.” The recognition of a sitting Vice President in the re-election letterhead is a bipartisan tradition. In 1996, we got behind the “Clinton/Gore ‘96 General Committee.” As far back as the halcyon “what’s a computer?” campaign days of 1980, we Democrats rallied around the “Carter/Mondale Presidential Committee, Inc.” (One of my first paid employers.)

So, where is the name, “Biden” in next year’s committee name?

Little happens at the level of a Presidential campaign without thought and planning; the malapropisms, errata, and gaffes of Bachmann and Palin notwithstanding. While I will certainly keep an eye on this post’s comments for other explanations, I can see three possible reasons for the absence of the Vice President’s name. (1) This could be just another manifestation of the narcissistic and borderline messianic tendencies of this President, and of his coterie of Chicago hacks, who have yet to realize he was elected President for the same reason he won the Nobel Peace Prize; his name isn’t “Bush.”

(2) There may be some measured consideration that Vice President Biden, whose open-mike flaps and other memorable moments are Leno-Letterman fodder, may be something of a drag on the ticket, or at least doesn’t give it a boost. This explanation could well coincide with (1). I would argue against it. Biden is a solid Washington presence, knows his way around the Hill, and brings a lot to the table that is lacking in the Oval Office. Voters want to know that the man or woman “a heartbeat away” is up to the promotion if, God forbid ... Remember the Palin drag as her lack of depth became apparent late in the 2008 campaign. Without it, we might have been challenging President McCain next year.

(3) - and I can’t believe this is the case and no one’s leaked it, the omission of Biden’s name might be a signal that has been missed by the entire punditocracy, blogosphere, and even the phone-tapping minions of Rupert Murdoch. Of course, if (2) reflects the perception in the Obama high command, then (3) becomes a more plausible scenario. The Vice President was not yet 30 on the day he was first elected to the Senate in 1972; he attained the Constitutionally-required age before Congress convened in January. Of course, that means he will be 70 at the beginning of the next Presidential term. That is not too old by recent historical precedent. However, the Chicago hacks place an excessive premium on the President’s “youth appeal,” and 70 may be a number that troubles them.

It is possible that I am reading too much into these facts. Trying to interpret signals that may not even be there is as dicey as my (late) Cold War work parsing the photographs atop Lenin’s Tomb in Правда to determine who was in or out in the Kremlin. Whatever the explanation, this is an item that bears close scrutiny in the coming months. Obama need not make a move to replace Biden for some time, but any story of that magnitude will be hard to keep under wraps. If the Vice President is going to remain on the ticket, someone needs to take a crayon to the letterhead, pronto, not only to express the President’s confidence in his running mate, but to prevent the rumor mill from going to work. As I said, I am happy with the Vice President, and think it would be a mistake to replace him on the ticket. That said, speculation about potential replacements at least makes an interesting parlor game.

In a totally unrelated note, emptying my pockets earlier this evening, I discovered that someone, apparently mistaking it for a quarter, had given me a Susan B. Anthony dollar in change. Of course, I am not at all into omens or other irrational forms of superstition. Not at all.


  1. Good read as always. 'preciate it!