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Latest Column: Candidates Put Pop in Politics — And Often Flop

Romney-flag_300Mitt Romney’s attack line on President Obama last week undoubtedly was scripted, polished and keyed up for just the right moment. “The gap between his promises and his performance is the largest I’ve seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of ’til death do we part,” Romney said.

Sure the reference was contrived, but guess what portion of Romney’s speech — his umpteenth in a week in Iowa — got played over and over?

In the battle for campaign lines that stick, candidates could do worse than reference pop culture in making the case to voters. The idea of Romney investing any amount of time keeping up with the Kardashians conjures images of a parent trying too hard to be hip, but the mix of serious politics and not-so-serious tabloid pop is what gets picked up, re-tweeted and rehashed. And given the state of political discourse these days, there doesn’t seem to be much concern that the mix of the superficial with the serious is somehow debasing the nature of rhetoric. The last election cycle saw candidates granting interviews to “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” anxious to reach audiences who otherwise may not be paying attention; this time around, why not TMZ?

Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason U., says that politicians turn to such references — even if they may not have much of an awareness of the people whose notoriety they’re borrowing — because “it is more likely that the talk over the water cooler will be about Kim Kardashian than the latest policy statement.

“The risks are that it looks phony,” Lichter says. “You can’t be older and stuffy and make references that teenagers make, and you might do it wrong.” Before he ended his presidential bid, Tim Pawlenty gave a speech to College Republicans where he referenced Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen, and even said the rather cringe-worthy line, “There’s going to be a lot of winning on the Republican side.” Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 criticized the TV sitcom character Murphy Brown for having a child without a father, and caught backlash not just on the sitcom, but also from political strategists who cited the inanity of picking a fight with a fictional character.

But even if candidates aren’t aware of the situation they’re referencing, a nugget can still work if it’s newsworthy enough, Lichter adds.

Martin Kaplan, founding director of USC’s Norman Lear Center, was chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980 when he inserted a reference to the “Who Shot J.R?” cliffhanger episode on “Dallas,” the top-rated TV show of the time, into a speech. According to Kaplan, Mondale read it out loud, his staff laughed, and the vice president turned to Kaplan and asked, “Who the hell is J.R.?” Mondale read the speech anyway and the line worked.

With the right delivery, such lines can be effective. Facing serious competition for the Democratic nomination against Gary Hart in 1984, Mondale attacked his rival’s rhetoric with the line, “Where’s the beef?” — a reference to an ubiquitous Wendy’s ad that used the phrase repeatedly. President Ronald Reagan successfully used the “make my day” line spoken by Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan character in “Sudden Impact,” and in 1988, George H.W. Bush appropriated a “Dirty Harry”-type attitude when he told the Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Of course, the memorable line had a boomerang effect in 1992, making it easy to recall the promise in the face of the fact that Bush had, indeed, raised taxes.

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