Politics and professional wrestling are twin brothers of different fathers. One born from a Jefferson, the other a McMahon. To understand one is to understand the other. Politics is simply professional wrestling with podiums. Or better yet, professional wrestling is playing politics in your underwear. Both require big guns.
Consider these five rules to success in both endeavors:
1. You gotta have a good gimmick.
WWE: Stone Cold Steve Austin is the beer-drinking hellraiser. Rowdy Roddy Piper the crazy Scot. The Undertaker gothic evil. Hulk Hogan the American hero. The way these dudes talk and dress enhance their assigned caricatures. It is how fans identify and perceive them. And the best gimmicks are often those not far from the true nature of the person. Back in the day Ric Flair really was as wild and – Wooooooooo – slick with the ladies as his in-ring persona suggested. Authenticity is not a requirement, but it does accentuate the narrative and promise success for the character.
W,D.C.: George W. Bush is the born again cowboy. John Kerry is a Vietnam vet. Bill Clinton was the Man from Hope who felt your pain. John Edwards is the son of a mill worker. John McCain drove the Straight Talk Express. Ned Lamont embodies a Referendum on the War. These guys lack only theme music and valets. (Could you imagine John McCain coming to a stage like this? I can.)
I’m not saying these traits aren’t authentic. I only argue that they are overstated and emphasized in an effort to brand the candidates.
Already some 2008 presidential aspirant gimmicks are taking shape. Rudy Giuliani is America’s Mayor. Al Gore is The Environmentalist. Hillary Clinton The Inevitable. Bill Richardson The Hispanic. Mitt Romney The Morman Guliani. John Kerry The Lost Cause (he really needs to give it up).
And yes, props are encouraged, but rare. Just as Al Snow carried Head, Hacksaw Jim Duggan swung a 2-by-4, and Junk Yard Dog had a chain, Lamar Alexander always wore a red-and-black checkered shirt, Ross Perot was quick with pie charts and George Allen always wears his cowboy boots (he’s a man of the people, you see).
2. You gotta know how to work an audience.
WWE: Any dude with a great physic can be a wrestler. You really don’t even need much in-ring ability (see Undertaker, The). But to be an elite wrestler – a main eventer – you have to be able to generate a strong reaction from the crowd. Positive. Negative. Shock. Awe. Disgust. It doesn’t matter. Just get noticed.
It sounds easy. It’s not. Even in a scripted world, it takes a special talent to stand near-naked before 15,000 people and a national television audience and attract eyeballs, not catcalls. Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Hogan and – Wooooooooooooo – Flair are considered masters in this regard. Whether talking on the mic or “telling a story” in the ring, they will generate a reaction. Big muscles are not a prerequisite. Look at The American Dream Dusty Rhodes and the Hardcore Legend Mick Foley. Both had as much flab as gab, and both could jab and stab. Both were also World Champions. So it’s not how good you look, but how well you connect. Unless you’re a Diva. Then you just stand there and pose pretty, like John Edwards.
WDC: You can have the greatest plans, the keenest insight and plenty of personal wealth, but you have no office if you can’t work an audience. Ronald Reagan, Clinton, Perot, Howard Dean, W – all molded great gimmicks with an ability to inspire a strong reaction. Steve Forbes, Joe Biden, Bill Bradley, Bob Dole – not so much.
3. You need a signature move.
WWE: Hulk Hogan has the leg drop. Flair the Figure Four. Triple H the Pedigree. The Rock the Rock Bottom. Shawn Michaels Sweet Chin Music. RVD the Five Star Frog Splash. Every wrestler has one such move. It usually clears the way for the 1-2-3.
WDC: The same goes for politicos, though not in the same sense. Instead of a seemingly superhuman power, successful candidates need to be linked to a key strength. In 2000 Joe Lieberman had Moral Authority and Dick Cheney had Gravitas. McCain Talks Straight. Bush Does What He Says. Clinton is a Fighter. Gore a Great Debater. These were not so much gimmicks but great strengths which usually plowed the opposition. Unless you over do it, such as sighing endlessly and ripping paper while the other guy speaks. Then you’re toast. (I’m looking at you Gore).
4. You gotta attract dollars.
WWE: TV ratings and pay-per-view buy rates are the industry’s top dollar barometers. If a wrestler excites the Neilsons, he’ll get more airtime. If the dial goes flat, they’re gone from the mat. It’s all about proving you can get fans to care.
WDC: It’s not ratings you desire but cold sweet cash. I’m talking fundraising, baby, a dirty word as inseparable from politics as Woodstock to Snoopy. The true power and potential of a politician is seen by his or her ability to get others to investment in their candidacy. If you can’t convince people to give you dollars, you sure as hell aren’t going to get their votes.
And how do candidates attract said dollars? Great gimmicks and connecting with an audience. If you lack in either, you lack in coins. And it doesn’t work the other way around. (See Forbes, Steven and Huffington, Michael).
5. It doesn’t matter how you keep the belt, as long as you keep the belt.
WWE: It’s a common end to a common wrestling match. The ref is distracted or accidentally “knocked out.” The heel (ie. bad guy) hits the face (ie. good guy) with the dreaded “foreign object. It’s usually a chair, but a sledgehammer or trashcan lid will do. The face is knocked out cold. The heel covers. The ref “awakens” just in time to count 1,2,3. The heel wins again. Fans boo. He clearly cheated. But it doesn’t matter. He won. He’s still the champ. He kept the belt. You lost.
Can the face find redemption and take revenge? Tune in next week! Same Mat Time, same Mat Channel! Upon this pro wrestling is built.
WDC: The same rule applies in politics – do whatever it takes to win. For many people, this is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s fact.
Candidate Clinton promised a middle-class tax cut. Once elected, he abandoned it. It didn’t matter. He’d won. He was the champ.
President Bush often uses 9/11 as a rallying cry to score political points. Shameless? Yes. Does it work? He’s still the champ, isn’t he?
John Kerry based most of his presidential campaign on his Vietnam experience. It was meant to be a shield to all attacks or critiques of his Iraq war views, especially given the lack of similar service by his opponents. Then Swift Boat guys appeared. Vets went after a vet, who argued he was beyond such criticism because one does not question a vet. You can classify either move as outrageous and unfair, but that’s politics. Do whatever it takes to win.
Those are countless other examples. The validity of each depends on whether you see the beneficial party as a heel or face. Consider the 2002 New Jersey Senate race, during which the Democrat-appointed state Supreme Court in the Democrat-dominated electorate rewrote election law to get a Democrat elected. There’s also the 2004 Washington governor’s race, which ended only when recount after recount discovered more and more Democrat votes until enough were found to put the Democrat in office.
And I ain’t even going to bring up what happened in 2000. Depending on who was your guy, the presidency was either stolen or almost was. Doesn’t matter now. Bush won. He’s the champ.
I’m not saying it’s pretty or fair. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you can understand these five rules, you can understand politics. At least it works for me.