When then-Virginia Gov. George Allen uttered the word “macaca” back in 2006, he changed American politics.
The setting was a campaign event for his run for U.S. Senate, and Allen decided to rile up the crowd by singling out a young man of Indian descent, a volunteer for his opponent who was there to record his every move.
“Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” Allen said. “Macaca,” it turns out, is either a word for monkey or an ethnic slur. Allen’s attack was replayed endlessly on television and the Internet, and helped doom his ambitions.
Politicians, of course, have been making ill-advised comments for as long as there have been politicians. The lesson here was that technology had raised the stakes exponentially, that anything a candidate says might go viral.
Barack Obama’s comments from 2008 about small-town folks who cling to their guns and religion, followed in 2012 by Mitt Romney’s contention that the 47 percent of Americans who backed Obama’s re-election “believe that they are victims,” sealed the deal. Big-time politics had entered an era in which it’s far too risky to veer from a preplanned script and speak off the cuff or from the heart. With professional trackers and smartphone-armed regular folks everywhere, politicians — particularly those in expensive, high-stakes contests like Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race — are playing it safe and keeping things predictable.
Yet for those who like their politics more freewheeling, technology also offers a countertrend, one that’s already apparent in down-ballot races such as the race for the open 6th Congressional District seat.
Chalk it up to candidates’ newfound ability to speak directly to voters, journalists and one another through social media sites such as Twitter.
Some political feeds are careful, cautious and consultant-driven, of course. Others — and it’s pretty easy to tell which ones — seem to carry the voices of the candidates themselves. They can be unexpectedly blunt, intimate, unguarded and funny, and offer the exact opposite of the cautious rhetoric that Allen’s experience inspired.
So while these Twitter feeds feature plenty of photos of earnest hopefuls mingling with earnest citizens, they also occasionally serve up more entertaining fare.
Over the past week or so, alert followers might have caught state Sen. Dan Claitor’s smiling grip-and-grin with a guy decked out in an imperial storm trooper’s uniform, a la “Star Wars.”
“Not sure this guy is registered in LA 6th,” Claitor quipped.
Then there was the family spread from Edwin Edwards’ new son’s first birthday, celebrating the first time he’s had all five of his kids together. The photo of the nearly 87-year-old holding his infant son surrounded by his four children from his first marriage, all of whom would be able to pass for their half-brother’s grandparent, could serve as a Rorschach test measuring whether a reader finds the ex-governor’s new life charming or creepy.
Give Edwards this: He’s doing a lot better on Twitter than he did on that other thoroughly modern medium, reality TV. In fact, he and former state coastal czar Garret Graves got into a genuine trash-tweeting match last week. It started with a lively debate over whether Graves’ young kids, featured in his initial ad, are cuter than Edwards’ third wife Trina, who is more than 50 years younger than the ex-governor.
“I’m confused? Are you saying my wife isn’t cute or my kid isn’t cute?” Edwards answered.
Trina Edwards chimed in, too. “A true southern gentleman you are not, sir!” she tweeted Graves.
State Rep. Lenar Whitney, meanwhile, is using the platform to go after the many critics of her video asserting that global warming is a “hoax.” That included a Washington journalist who reported that she’d fled their interview when he aggressively quizzed her for her sources. Whitney tweeted that he was out to get her for being a conservative woman, and the whole episode escalated until the reporter, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, wrote on the Washington Post’s website that Whitney was the most frightening congressional candidate he’d ever interviewed.
That column, too, went viral.