How the 'West Wing' fantasy handlers cocked up parties' General Election campaign
For three of the main parties, it was a huge mistake to make this election campaign all about the leaders, says Brendan O'Connor
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
It's hard to say how or why this election campaign became a presidential-style one. I have my own pet theory on it.
Political handlers, political media, and indeed the Twitterati, tend to be more interested in American politics than the average man on the street. The political classes in this country also seem to be big fans of the White House-based soap opera The West Wing.
While low-level thugs like to watch Goodfellas and The Godfather trilogy and imagine this is their life, and single women used to watch Sex and the City and imagine their lives in those terms, political hacks love the fantasy vision of themselves that The West Wing mirrored back at them.
In The West Wing, handlers, advisors and journos alike were smart-talking, snappy, cool people, people who wanted to do good but who constantly had their hearts broken by the trade-offs necessary in politics. They were also the real brains and the real power in Washington, as they looked after their guy, the President.
The President in this case was a fantasy too, the best President America ever had, a man who was flawed and only human, but who showed courage and humanity and vision.
So the political classes like to imagine that this is the world they inhabit, where they are the smartest guys in the room, devoted to their jobs to the point of dysfunctionality, devoted to doing good for the people. And Jed Bartlet, or indeed the actor who plays him, Martin Sheen, is the best president America never had.
You'd be amazed how many of these people slightly imagine Martin Sheen should be the 'Potus', as these people delight in calling it.
So my theory is that these people collectively made their West Wing fantasies come true by turning this election campaign into an American presidential-style campaign, with the handlers and the media colluding to make it so. And it backfired on all of them, except Fianna Fail.
We have all been heavily pushed over the last three weeks into believing that we were choosing between personalities, between potential leaders. The various parties and their identities were essentially personified in the leaders.
And it was the leaders who took centre-stage in most of the relentless diary of election events. Which must have given all the wannabe West Wingers the major jollies as they lived out their Josh Lyman fantasies. Josh Lyman, in case you don't know, was the Chandler Bing of The West Wing, a fast-talking, slightly intense and highly strung guy who is complicated behind all the wise cracking.
This would have all worked very well if the leaders of the various parties were the greatest assets their parties had. But with the exception of Martin, they are not.
Take Sinn Fein. If you were to ask anyone who Sinn Fein's greatest assets are, they would tell you Mary Lou and Pearse Doherty. Gerry Adams would not come high up the list, and he is even lower on the list after this campaign. Inappropriate, thuggish at times, out-of-touch seeming and not good with detail and figures, Adams probably single-handedly took a few percent of Sinn Fein's votes. Indeed, at the last leaders' debate on Tuesday night, I found myself with a new impression of Adams.
It's usually the last thing you think about people in these positions, because you assume a certain level of intelligence. But having watched him for the last few weeks, I suddenly had a breakthrough moment about Adams the other night. No offence, but I just don't think he is the brightest. We can pussyfoot around it all we want and talk about him not being good with figures.
But in reality, I think it's broader than that.
There's no doubt Adams must have a certain intelligence, the kind that makes you a good strategist for a terrorist organisation and a peace process. But watching over the last few weeks, the only real conclusion you come to is that he is, in certain ways, a bit of a bimbo. So it was certainly an enormous mistake for Sinn Fein to pay along with the presidential-style campaign.
It would be stating the obvious to say that in terms of thinking fast in the deathmatch of leaders' debates, Enda Kenny would not be Fine Gael's greatest asset. Indeed, for an election campaign that was all about appealing to the voters' confidence in competence, stability, the economy, etc, Noonan would have been the obvious frontman. But he barely appeared for whatever reason.
Leo and Simon were noticeably absent a lot of the time too, and you'd have to say that when Leo did get an outing, his slightly intellectual, detached, casual-observer style, did not perhaps convey the passion and conviction needed. So instead, Enda was the face of the campaign. Enda made some high-profile gaffes, failed to distinguish himself in debates and Fine Gael steadily seemed to lose support as the campaign went on.
It's difficult to say who Labour's biggest assets are right now, but it's probably safe to say Joan Burton is not one of them. Anecdotally, the feeling you'd get is that Joan began to annoy people during this campaign.
Allied to that, Labour's poll ratings seemed to crush her confidence and that sense of authority she once had diminished, perhaps due to spin-doctors telling her she needed to soften her image for the voters. As the campaign continued, Burton seemed more and more like a golfer with the yips, unable to do anything right, no flow, overthinking everything and second guessing herself. So the presidential model backfired on Labour as well. And then there's Micheal Martin, the breakout star of this campaign and the only one who appeared to benefit from the presidential campaign.
Martin is his party's greatest asset. And more than that, Martin, unlike the other leaders, was a stronger brand without the baggage of his party to hold him back. There can be no doubt that the swing towards Fianna Fail in this campaign was a swing towards Martin. He came across as decent, as quite real and as resilient in debate. Even when he was confronted with the allegedly toxic past of his party, he rebutted it well.
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Martin also seemed to be better managed, better handled, better prepped than all the others. In the final leader's debate, someone from Mars watching it would have thought Martin was the Taoiseach. He was the focal point of it all. The others seemed, in a way, to orbit around him. In showbiz parlance, and showbiz is what the Westwingers tried to reduce this campaign to, Martin owned the room. He was a man who had grown in power and stature over the three weeks, despite everything that we were told hung over him.
Of course, all of this is not to ignore that Irish elections are fought on the ground and that winning a seat is still, all too often, down to how many funerals a guy goes to. So there were, in reality, two campaigns going on here. We are seeing now many surprises on the ground that prove that politics in Ireland is a very local affair, but when it comes to the bigger picture, the Government screwed up royally by making this a presidential campaign and playing into Fianna Fail's hands.