I know, hearing this from a cartoonist is like having Ben or Jerry tell you that there’s nothing sweeter than ice cream — but it’s true! There is nothing like ice cream, and there’s nothing like a well-drawn and sharply honed political caricature.
The cartoon village’s collective caricature of the candidates is as much a part of our campaign tradition as the stump speech or the big balloon drop.
One reason political caricature fascinates is that political cartoons are not part of the retail campaign machines. Cartoonists are odd-ball free agents, scribbling our own idiosyncratic impressions of the personalities and issues of the campaign. Sure, we listen to our muses — and maybe the grumblings of our publishers or friends, spouses or the crabby guy on the next bar stool. But a cartoon is the opposite of a partisan, focus-grouped campaign commercial shaped by image consultants. It’s a singular and quirky attempt to capture a political insight in a pithy nugget of drawing and satire.
The popular perception of the candidate in many ways gets crystallized by the cartoon caricature. Conservative cartoonists like Nate Beeler and Michael Ramirez have refined a haughty, aloof President Barack Obama who literally looks down his nose. Other Obamas drawn on the right have the teleprompters practically glued to the sides of his head; others play on a pencil-neck quality that seems to be a graphic symbol of him not being up to the job … or up to filling the leader-of-the-free-world suit.
And then on the other hand, we’ve got the caricatures of Mitt Romney. I personally have done a few of him as Richie Rich of the old comic books. There has also been the top hat and monocled Romney done by Tom Tomorrow and any number of treatments that have used the dressage horse. As for his face, most of us work to capture the patrician jaw line and aristocratic mane that all lean more toward a prom king than Ronald Reagan when it comes to Romney.
Beyond hairlines and smirks, cartoonists also capture the kooky themes and memes of the political circus. These can become strangely adhesive little metaphors that stick to the candidates and become part of their campaign.
That’s because cartoonists are to memes what fleas are to the bubonic plague. We are the best little transmitters of a simplistic political thought.
A tiny minority of people flipping through a newspaper actually stop to read the editorials, but nearly 100 percent will pause and take in the editorial cartoon. Similarly on Facebook, a nearly instantly consumed image with an entertaining punch line is the best way to quickly convey a kernel of thought — one that then can be easily shared with others.
In this cycle, the best example of this is the amazingly sticky tale of Seamus, the pooch on the roof, and how it’s come to dog Romney.
|Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune|
|Barry Blitt in Vanity Fair|
With all due respect to Gail Collins and her efforts on Seamus’s behalf, the real glue that made this story of the dog tied onto the roof of the car stick to Romney was all the cartoons. Cartoonists are the ones who made this an enduring meme of 2012.
It’s a metaphor that launched a thousand cartoons — with the 99 percent strapped to the roof, then the 47 percent, then Eric Fehrnstrom, Rick Santorum, women voters, Marco Rubio and even Romney strapped to the roof of a car driven by vengeful dogs. The meme had so much traction. The Romney forces tried to beat it back with a countermeme — the idea of Obama being even worse: a dog eater! A number of conservative cartoonists tried their best with a counterattack of cartoons featuring doggie dinners at the White House. But that one never really stuck to Obama.
|Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch|
I’m not entirely sure what the Seamus meme means. It’s a metaphor for something about Romney that’s about more than his treatment of the family dog. Its resonance goes beyond the dog lovers and touches on deeper questions about Romney being out of touch, a little out there, willing to take us for a ride.
It’s true metaphorical import will no doubt emerge in future history books, but regardless, for now it’s clear this metaphor is firmly strapped to the roof of Romney’s campaign bus, … and for that and for other caricatures of the campaign, he can thank the cartoonists.
Matt Wuerker has been POLITICO’s editorial cartoonist and illustrator since its launch in 2007. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.