Last night at Fountain Street Church, longtime journalist Ray Suarez–a senior correspondent on PBS’ News Hour–spoke as part of Grand Rapids Community College’s (GRCC) Diversity Lecture Series. Suarez’s talk focused on the upcoming presidential election with Suarez sharing his insights on the campaign, the focus on candidates’ personalities, race, and religion.
Suarez began by talking about how exciting this election is–calling it the most exciting of his career. He said that while there is still a month left, polls are starting to indicate that Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama is establishing a substantial lead. Still, he said that it is astonishing that the election was ever this close. He expressed surprise that with Bush having such low approval ratings, the weak economy (which Democrats have an advantage on), dissatisfaction with the government, and significant public opposition to the Iraq War that the election is so close when the Republican candidate is so closely tied to those policies.
Suarez argued that the Republican “brand” has problems connecting with voters and that polls repeatedly show that people have a hard time feeling like Republicans care about them. Consequently, this has been more of a “personality” campaign than an issue based campaigned. Iraq–which everyone thought was going to be a major issue–is hardly discussed, while the two major party candidates are also not offering particularly detailed proposals on the economy. Instead, the two candidates are focusing on their biographies and repeatedly saying “this is who I am and how I am like you.” Consequently, the public is hearing about McCain’s captivity in Vietnam, Obama’s past as a community organizer, Palin being a hockey mom, and Joe Biden’s wife–none of which offer any kind of policy prescriptions. The candidates are aiming for a “regular guy” appeal more than issues. Suarez said we see this with the vice presidential candidates, with Biden talking about being from Scranton even though he hasn’t lived their for years and Palin saying that she is middle class even though she makes four times as much money as what one would earn to be consider middle class. According to Suarez, these are all part of carefully designed campaign strategies to win over voters.
Suarez also talked about the role that race has played in the campaign, although he reminded the audience that it has played out in subtle ways. Instead, Suarez said that the public is getting a number of “pseudo-controversies” about Barack Obama that serve as proxies for race–Obama’s “missing” birth certificate, questions about his father’s religion, and concern about the time Obama spent in Indonesia. While it is unknown how much race will play in the final vote, many of these questions are being used to confer the status of “the other” on Obama and raise questions about his capacity to lead.
Finally, Suarez talked briefly about the role that religion is playing in the campaign. He said that as an issue, religion probably reached its high mark in the 2004 presidential campaign. In this election, Obama is willing to talk about religion while McCain is more uncomfortable doing so, a change from typical stereotypes about how Democrats and Republicans deal with faith. Despite his willingness to talk about faith, Obama has consistently been asked to prove that he is a Christian. Moreover, there are questions about what kind of Christian he is–a reference to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright–which the Republicans seem increasingly willing to exploit. There has also been persistent “chatter” about Obama being a Muslim by the right, who use it as another way to project “otherness” on Obama. For many on the right, they know that raising the issue in the current political climate means that it is only a short step from Muslim to terrorist.
Suarez concluded by reminding the audience that no matter what is going on in the campaign, there is no doubt that the next president is going to face serious issues–the Iraq War, the health care crisis, rising prices on almost everything, stagnant wages, and a growing national debt. Suarez left it up to the audience to ponder whether these issues are being addressed in the campaign.