Lipstick on a Pig, An Old Fish Who Stinks.


The Democrats attacked the Republicans twice on Tuesday using a lipstick metaphor. First,

Democratic Congressman Russ Carnahan on Tuesday – introducing Joe Biden at a campaign event – ripped into Palin’s record and punctuated it with this snarky jab. “There’s no way you can dress up that record, even with a lot of lipstick,”

Later in the day, Barack Obama referred to lipstick on a pig and immediately after to an old fish who smells:

You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig.

You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still gonna stink.

Before this, Obama listed many issues on which he said that McCain was simply following Bush’s policies.

Those juxtapositions allowed Obama's supporters to claim that he wasn’t actually calling Palin a pig, and allowed his opponents to claim that he called Palin a pig and McCain an old fish who stinks.

This coupled comparison and the lipstick meme introduced earlier on Tuesday tends to suggest that Obama’s comment was not off-the-cuff; it was probably planned.

Palin’s defenders complain that it’s an insult. Of course, it’s an insult. Insulting the opponent is what Palin did to Obama in her convention speech and what Obama did to McCain in his.

Probably, the Democratic speechwriters today were trying to do their own version of Palin’s pointed gibes (about community organizing, talking about victory, personal discovery, etc.), but got the tone wrong. There is little question that in literal textual terms, Obama was referring to the views of McCain and Palin, not McCain and Palin themselves. The choice of language, however, suggests a high likelihood that Obama was also intentionally alluding to Palin and McCain personally.

It is not just a case of plausible deniability; the speechwriters were trying to be witty. By referring to McCain and Palin’s ideas using colorful language that will cause his audience to think of the actual people Palin and McCain, Obama was almost certainly trying to come right up to the line between acceptable and unacceptable insults without actually crossing it. That Obama's crowd understood the allusion to Palin is suggested by the enthusiastic cheers that started even before he finished the pig sentence. Without seeing the Palin connection, would they have cheered in the middle of him uttering an otherwise completely ordinary cliche?

Did Obama have female speechwriters work on his speech? If not, would he have miscalculated if he did?

Was Obama calling Palin a pig and McCain a stinky old fish? No, it would be too crude to do – and he didn’t directly do so.

But when Obama talked about a pig and a fish, was he slyly referring to them personally? Almost certainly. Very likely, this paired comparison was intended to be a Palin-style sharp, but good natured insult. It misfired because the insult was far less sly (and far more crude) than he and his speechwriters thought it was.


The proper Republican response for a joke that misfires would be to make fun of Obama’s gaffe, but not to demand an apology. Palin is tough. An off-color joke may not be that big a deal – and even if it is, she should be tough enough to brush it off. The Republican narrative should be that Obama is losing his cool and that he is acting like a VP candidate by going after the other VP candidate — ie, they should be suggesting that Obama can't take the heat.

Further, having people other than Palin demanding apologies on her behalf sends a false message that she is weak and needs protection.

Republicans should make some political hay about Obama's crude insults for a couple days – as the Democrats did about McCain’s multiple apartments – and then move on.

This is far from the worst thing that either side has said – or will say – about each other.

Instapundit has a nice roundup on this issue.