Campaign ’08: A Ben Hur Redux.

They’re off. It’s on. But is it a race or is it a battle?

On this, the last day before the election (whew!), we take pause to recall the long babblefest that has slopped our airwaves, headlines and carpools. Who can forget the defiant 2006 Time magazine cover “…The Next President”? [1]; the rebelious maturing of McCain? [2]; Clinton’s years spent learning the ropes? [3]; Palin’s lunge for the lead? [4]. This tireless, tiresome process tired most, having more resembled a pilgrimage to the voter’s booth than a race to the presidency.

Around the world, the rhetorical frame used to describe an election campaign typically vacillates between some form of race (usually a horserace or footrace) and some form of battle (usually boxing/wrestling or distance warfare). This election pitted several out-of-gas racing metaphors against on-the-ropes boxing metaphors (“McCain hitting his stride, “Biden lags well back from the Democratic field” or “Romney ahead in Iowa poll” versus “Clintons provide one-two punch, “a stunning blow to Romney” or “Clinton is beating Obama in the polls”). While other metaphor systems make appearances in American politics, the gravitational pull is always towards this mismatched attitudinal duet.

A race is a competitive forward progression along a linear path towards an untouched destination. The first competitor to reach the destination is the winner, while the others become the losers (runners up or also ran). In this way, the competition centers on the new territory beyond the finish line, metaphorically protected by a tape strewn across the finish – the winner becoming the first and only [Observer's Note: we are resisting a natural digression into the process of conception].

A battle is a competitive territorial progression within a pre-existing finite space. In this case, the destination is exclusively the territory occupied by one competitor. The competitor that acquires the other’s space becomes the victor [=conqueror], while the one that loses space becomes the defeated [from Latin: "undo"]. One is either advancing into another’s territory (on top) or they are defending their own (underdog). In this way, the battle is staged in the assumed or existing territory of one opponent [Observer's Note: we refuse to digress into a discussion of mating territory and sperm competition].

The polls have been favoring Obama for some time now. His position as favorite has it that he need only keep his pace to win the race. His lead, when placed in a battle context, implies that he had gained at least some assumed Republican territory from McCain, which could only be taken as an invasion. In response, McCain switched into battle mode, defending the GOP from losing further ground. Hence, the late-day introduction of Palin, a hunting mom described as “a pitbull” and “a rogue“: a pistol-packin’, unchained she-dog of war. In the run-up to the Palin-Biden debate, many talking heads said that Biden had to be soft on her, being that she is a female and all [5]. With her role as pooch in a PETA environment, it was necessary for criticism to avoid the ad feminam – so lawbyists from the Democratic camp seized on the party’s decision to shroud Palin in fineries [6]. This pincer strategy by the left-handed CREW assured Observers that Obama’s race was now being run on a battlefield.

The rhetoric has been getting down and dirty in these final hours before the election with blockbuster anti-Obama ads saturating the air. And while the Obama campaign had tried to run aloft and clean, the McCain warrior brought in the blood and mud. Fixedly attacking Obama’s heels with Sarah the Pitbull, McCain put himself across as an underdog who was defending the Conservative territory. So while Obama was in a race because he was ahead, McCain was in a battle because he was being defeated.

The Observatory entertained the notion that this rhetoric has created an electoral Circus Maximus. Obama Ben Hur has been racing for the presidential prize with his white horses of hope (“yes we can”) and a gilded chariot (well-funded campaign) against McCain Messala and his dark horses of despair (impending Al Qaeda attack, floundering middle class). McCain’s Palin-spiked wheels were brought in to help destroy Obama’s vehicle, while McCain continued lashing out at Obama himself. Obama necessarily fought back, but never lost sight of the finish line. So will Obama the Favorite win the race, or will McCain the War Hero win the battle? As we enter the final stretch, we must wait patiently to find out….or we can just YouTube it!


Our condolences to Barack for the loss of his grandmother, Madelyn.

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