Over the weekend, there were two new volleys in the surrogate-video war betwen Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: respectively, a new SNL cold-open skit making Hillary out as the victim of the media, and another celebrity-packed music video dedicateed to Obama from the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. As is so often the case with sequels, both videos suggest that the two surrogates would have been better off quitting while they were ahead.
Here’s the SNL debate skit:
And Hillary’s “response”:
The skit was funny enough, but in more or less exactly the way the first one was, and not as much. That’s the comedic reason SNL should have done something different–though you can’t blame them for grabbing the buzz-driving political relevance–but that’s only one reason why the skit didn’t work so well for Hillary.
As I just wrote in my column, one of the essential reasons that surrogate videos work for candidates is that they’re surrogate videos. They can make arguments that for various reasons a campaign would never put in the candidates’ own mouth. (“Bitches get stuff done” is a real, legitimate if comical argument, but Hillary could never make it.) That’s why the first debate skit, which cleverly made the argument that media was being unevenly harsh on Hillary, worked so well, and that’s also why it fell so flat when Hillary quoted it in the debate. When a third party like SNL is moved to say the press is picking on you, it seems credible; when you do it yourself—in an elliptical reference to a skit that viewers may or may not even have seen–it suddenly seems like excuse-making.
Likewise, having Hillary herself appear on SNL to meet Amy Poehler and say that the skit was not an endorsement made it seem that much more like, well, an endorsement (and a repetitive one at that). That is, putting the candidate too close to the sketch, after she just referenced one in a crucial debate, made SNL seem more like an explicit arm of the Clinton campaign, which really doesn’t serve either Hillary or SNL well. The skit itself at least made an effort at trying to poke fun at Hillary too–but when your stock in trade is independent satire, you don’t want your subjects to look too happy with being satirized.
Meanwhile, the follow-up to Yes We Can posted Friday:
This video, conversely, doesn’t work as well because of the words it takes out of the candidate’s mouth. Frankly, it’s probably not the sort of video anyone should attempt twice because it can so easily slip into self-parody. (I thought Yes We Can was tremendously powerful–probably so far the most significant artifact of campaign 2008, including the official ads–and yet I couldn’t help sometimes thinking, “Wow! Look at that new Gap ad!”) But Yes We Can worked because it took Obama’s own words from a speech, and set it to music and images that reinforced the speech. It was for Obama, but it was about us, in the sense that it emphasized the collective achievement of a movement.
We Are the Ones, on the other hand, fights against its own title. The idea of the phrase, an effective one so far for Obama, is that his campaign is about bottom-up change, not a personality-driven movement. But the repeated message of the video is: “O-bam-A! O-bam-A!” Sung, spoken and chanted incessantly. That works at a rally, at the culmination of a speech, but here, it takes an argument that the campaign is about us and makes it all about him. I’ve resisted writing about the meme out there that the Obama movement is somehow a “cult,” because it mostly seems like a pretty transparent effort to take essentials of political leadership–inspiration and dedication–and make them somehow sinister. That said, will.i.am manages to make Obama’s campaign seem pretty damn cult-y, which is the last thing it wants. (Nice touch getting Friday Night Lights’ Adrianne Palicki and Jesse Plemons, though. A message to the voters of the great state of Texas?)
In different ways, both examples show why surrogates are a double-edged sword. Actors, singers and comedians are entertainers, not politicians–which is both why they can be effective and why their well-intentioned work can politically backfire.