This presidential campaign has already featured dozens of television ads from both sides, ads promoting one candidate and attacking the other, ads about the economy and foreign policy and health care and many other subjects. But over the weekend the Obama campaign did something we haven't yet seen: it invited voters to laugh at Mitt Romney.
The source of the mirth was Mitt Romney's truly horrifying singing voice, in a rendition of "America the Beautiful." In the ad, we hear and see Romney singing, then we see a series of charges intimating that Romney's affection for America may only go so far; details are offered about Bain Capital promoting outsourcing and Romney distributing his ample wealth in accounts spread across the globe. You might not get all the particulars, but once you hear Romney singing, you'll never forget that.
Ridicule has a long tradition in politics here in America (and everywhere else), and we've certainly seen a lot of it in campaign ads in recent years. Four years ago, John McCain's campaign mocked Barack Obama by comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears; the Obama camp came back and ridiculed McCain for not knowing how to use a computer and not knowing how many houses he owned.
Four years earlier, George W. Bush's campaign ran ads showing John Kerry windsurfing while alleging he was a flip-flopper. Bush's father had ads showing Michael Dukakis looking silly in a helmet as he rode in a tank.
Ridicule may sometimes seem rude, but if nothing else it does away with the weirdly disingenuous veneer of politeness that is so often laid atop the most vicious attacks ("I have great respect for the gentleman from Ohio, I just believe he would send America to hell if he could").
The idea of weakness lies at the heart of almost all mockery, so it isn't surprising that mockery in campaigns is so often aimed at convincing voters that a candidate is not just contemptible, but contemptible for being weak. Whether it is wielded by the high against the low or vice-versa, it's all about taking away the target's power.
When citizens living in a dictatorship trade secret jokes about the dictator, they steal back just a bit of his ability to control them. In a democracy, our jokes about the president pull him down just enough to remind him and us that the people still rule. And when the stronger kids mock the weaker kids in the schoolyard, it keeps the weak ones weak and maintains the strong ones' position atop the hierarchy. You're never weaker than when everyone is laughing at you.
For a presidential candidate, weakness is deadly, so the image of strength is something every presidential contender tries to convey. We want to believe our presidents are possessed of an iron will and a moral steadfastness, that they will stand up for the country, not flinch from danger, and do what's right without blinking at the cost. This is why so many candidates have tried to portray their opponents as weak, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle (you might recall the 2004 Republican effort to convince voters that John Kerry "looks French," as though he were some effeminate Euro-hipster sucking Gauloises as he debated post-structuralist philosophy in a Left Bank café. Or, in other words, a wimp).
Ridicule is hardly guaranteed to work. George W. Bush was mocked relentlessly for eight years, and still managed to win two terms in the White House. It's too early to tell how many voters will laugh at Mitt Romney's singing. But this probably won't be the last time the Obama campaign will encourage voters to aim their contempt downward at him. And Romney will do—and has done—exactly the same.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.