What’s really at stake this November? The stark difference between the economic philosophies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? The choice between a headlong plunge into job-killing socialism and an enshrinement of heartless, predatory greed? The makeup of the Supreme Court for the next generation?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But for me, that’s not what’s really at stake. For me, this election threatens to invalidate my most enduring—make that my only enduring—contribution to American political discourse. It is highly possible that this is the year that Bugs Bunny loses.
Back in 2008, I presented to an anxiously waiting world a Meta Theory of Recent Presidential Elections, encapsulated by the idea that “Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck.”
As drawn by the Warner Bros. legend Chuck Jones, “Bugs and Daffy represent polar opposites in how to deal with the world,” I argued. “Bugs is at ease, laid back, secure, confident. ... Daffy Duck, by contrast, is ever at war with a hostile world. He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury. His response to bad news is a sibilant sneer (‘Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin!’). Daffy is constantly frustrated, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by his own overwrought response to them.”
The Bugs-Daffy frame is another way of saying that ever since the dawn of television put the public personalities of candidates front and center, the one who is more comfortable in his or her own skin always prevails against the more uptight, rigid foe. Think JFK-Nixon, Reagan-Carter, Clinton-Bush I, Bush II-Gore, Bush II-Kerry.
Four years ago, in his primary battle against Hillary Clinton and in the general election contest against John McCain, Barack Obama was clearly Bugs. Clinton and McCain took on the role of Daffy. Who can forget McCain, in the midst of one debate, scornfully pointing a figure at Obama and calling him “that one”?
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And it’s apparent this year that Obama is clearly more Bugs, and Mitt Romney more Daffy. Romney may be the only person in human existence who laughs by emitting an unsettling “HA HA HA.” His efforts to ingratiate himself with his audiences—"I love cars”, “the trees are the right height”—reek of performance anxiety, a fear of spontaneity.
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The Bugs-Daffy approach—I’d call it a “meme” if I knew what the hell a “meme” was—suggests that Obama should be gliding toward a comfortable re-election. That is distinctly not the case. The polls are even, and they are close enough in enough key states to make the race a tossup. Democratic voices from James Carville to Bill Galston say the same thing.
And that has forced me to take another look at my theory, with some unsettling results.
History suggests that Daffy Duck can sometimes win. The most obvious, in-your-face example is Richard Nixon in 1968. There was no more uptight, how-can-I-pretend-I’m enjoying-this, sweat-flop-coated public figure than Nixon. Yet he prevailed. How? First, Hubert Humphrey was no Bugs Bunny. Second, Nixon did blow a 15-point lead, and might well have lost had his campaign allies not persuaded South Vietnam to sabotage peace negotiations. And third, Nixon’s demeanor suggested a return to a time before turmoil roiled the land.
That last point has a broader echo. There are times when a candidate’s lack of personality can turn into an asset. For most of his first term, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg languished in public approval ratings. He was distant, aloof, just what you might expect from a multi-billionaire with more homes than most of us have shoes. But somewhere into his third year, things changed. His liabilities became assets. See? He’s not pandering; he says what he thinks; he’s not running for something, he’s governing. That change in perception made Bloomberg a highly popular mayor—at least until he bought and bullied his way to a third term.
During this fourth straight year of economic anxiety, Romney’s stolid, Type A personality may not be the campaign liability many of us assumed it would be. If the economic atmosphere continues to be cloudy with a chance of rain, voters (or at least enough of them) may decide, No, I don’t want to have a beer with him, but maybe he can do a better job of getting the economy right than the guy we have now.
There’s no way President Obama can lose the Bugs-Daffy battle. Mitt Romney is not going to be slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon or crooning a few bars from “Let’s Stay Together.” But I’m less convinced than I once was that once you’ve figured out who Bugs is, the only thing left to say is “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.”