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 V.19 No.41 | October 14 - 20, 2010 

Gene Grant

Surprise and Delight

Denish needs some magic in her corner

So much early promise. So little result.

There's a line in Thomas Hine's The Great Funk: "Every part of American culture, from its leaders to its cars and even its linoleum, seemed to promise expansiveness and progress, but nothing had turned out as advertised. By 1975 the future had turned from a promise to a shock."

It's an apt description of the Richardson years. And it plagues Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s chase for the keys to the governor’s mansion.

What we've got going on here is basically Denishstitched to Gov. Bill Richardson as Jimmy Carter, and Susana Martinez as Ronald Reagan. Denish hasn’t shed the feel-good, '70s redux vibe of her predecessor. That’s banged the door wide open for the slash-and-burn, "we're gonna right this ship," early-'80s sensibilities of Martinez.

As the gubernatorial candidates prep for the televised debate stage of this race, what are we looking for? Who has the natural advantage going in? Most importantly, which candidate has the most headroom to grow?

The Old World merchants' goal of winning customers through "surprise and delight should be applied to the Denish campaign. Surprise and delight. That might be a phrase to write on a yellow sticky note and put on her bathroom mirror. Her campaign folk have never gotten on top of this and offered something beyond what we already know.

For Denish to get out of that shadow during these debates, she must, in no uncertain terms, grow before our very eyes.

You have to feel for Denish and understand her dilemma. Her consistency has seen her through, but she is essentially the same person we met when she first entered the public realm. That's also her problem. There's no surprise. No flashes to make us sit up in our chairs and take note. And so, no delight.

This is not about bending to the will of political and cultural winds. It's about the body English of growth. Denish, thus far, has not shown it. She is still inside her old title, lieutenant governor. With that comes a nagging sense of a diminished figure unable to get out from under the shadow of something bigger than her.

If the key word describing Martinez in Democrat circles is "scary," then all she must do is not be scary.

Martinez exploits that. She also works much in the same way as Reagan, who exploited a freaked out populace beaten down by a decade of good times that shattered into a million pieces.

For Denish to get out of that shadow during these debates, she must, in no uncertain terms, grow before our very eyes.

Politicians must embrace and express all the icky stuff that allows that growth: in Denish’s case, an honest self-assessment of her role in the Richardson years, what she learned, and how it affected her as a person and a candidate. Critically, she has to show why she is ready to cast her own shadow. Cop to it. Grow.

Times have been kind to Martinez. The parameters of the tea party / anti-President Obama / anti-Richardson feeling are actually quite narrow. She has stayed inside that feeling effectively. She's expressed a sense of a new direction that doesn't require much detail or nuance. She had a lot to work with.

The prospect of a career prosecutor who views the world as a series of metaphorical borders (to be crossed at your peril or valued as the proper way of the world) has appeal. Much like Reagan, what she's proposing is a clean cultural break. Toward what isn’t even really the point. She has no idea herself. All she has to do is point her finger at some vague future world where New Mexicans are free from the ills of a broken social contract.

This is not about policy points. For example, her "economic plan" arrived with a dismissive smirk in July and departed quickly. This is a candidate in the middle of one of those periods where skill, experience and vision are nearly meaningless.

That said, she has her own growth issues. Not only is she the same figure we first met after the primaries, she seems to be the same basic personality we envision when she was strapped with a gun as a teenager, working the parking lot of a bingo hall. Good guys, bad guys. Simple.

The Dems may have supplied Martinez a small edge for the debates. If the key word describing Martinez in Democrat circles is "scary," then all she must do is not be scary. It's a hell of a lot easier than trying to be tough when that’s not your natural style, which is the case for the lieutenant governor. Denish's opportunity in these debates is in persuasive word play, which so far has been lacking.

George Lakoff wrote about what is bedeviling Democrat candidates this cycle in the Huffington Post: "bi-conceptual" voters, the 15 to 20 percent of the electorate who hold both liberal and conservative world views, but "may apply them to different issues in all sorts of ways." He's not talking only about registered Independents. Instead, this is about how all of us assess candidates through our contradictory and complicated individual maze, no matter our political affiliation.

"Many Democrats work with a major disadvantage: They tend to have an inadequate view of human reason. Human brains work via frames, metaphors, images, emotions, stereotypes and narratives, all of which have their own 'logics,' ” Lakoff writes.

Now, ask yourself this: Which candidate in this race has used "frames, metaphors, images, emotions, stereotypes and narratives" to greater advantage?

My suggestion, humbly, to Denish for the televised debates is simple: Sack whoever has been writing your stuff. Today. Lines like "my opponent is not being straight with you," offered at the Congregation Albert debate, is not going to get it done. Come out of the shadow. Grow.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
 

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