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Why Politicians Need to Beware of the Meme

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Sen. Marco Rubio can’t make a public appearance these days without at least one water-sip joke or mentioning his penchant for rap (or, let’s face it, both). But in this digital era of rapidly-moving memes and ever-declining attention spans, such jokes run the danger of getting old, fast.

It wasn’t that long ago when a political gaffe or joke had much longer shelf life. Saturday Night Live once held the market on highlighting candidates’ weird quirks or personalities, so much so that all you had to do was say “lock box” or “strategery” to sum up Al Gore or George W. Bush. And those jokes stayed funny for a long time.

That's not the case anymore. Just about anyone can make a meme -- a viral video or photoshopped picture that gets circulated online at a rapid pace -- and social networks let people push jokes on their own, circumventing traditional media outlets. But with so much content out there, people get sick of this stuff quickly. There’s a saturation point online; anything viral will eventually putter along and die on its own, and anyone still trying to push such memes will look woefully out-of-touch.

Remember “Call Me Maybe” parodies? Members of Congress got in on that. And then there was “Gangnam Style.” Rep. John Lewis danced along to encourage voting. If politicians want to be savvy, they need to get in on a trend quickly, while it’s still funny that a serious legislator is dancing like a crazy person, rather than it just being sad. The “Harlem Shake” had pretty much run its course before Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign put out its version -- which sort of signaled the meme was dead. And that was afterformer budget officials Alice Rivlin and David Walker did their own version.

Perhaps the most prominent, inadvertent meme generator is Vice President Joe Biden. The Onion’s version of Biden encapsulates a caricature: a shirtless, beer-drinking, Trans Am owner. But there are some bits of truth in the stereotype, given Biden's gregarious personality. Moments of levity, like Biden cozying up with bikers, come across as earnest and unscripted. And that’s probably why it hasn’t gotten old yet. Just take a look at his greatest hits from mock Senate-swear ins. His performance was a C-SPAN hit and prompted a White House petition for Biden to get his own reality show.

By the same token, it’s not as if Rubio calculated his infamous water sip. It was a genuine gaffe, and he exhibited savvy in how he handled it. After he finished the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Rubio immediately tweeted a photo of the water bottle with the hashtag #GOPResponse. He turned what could have been an embarrassing blunder into a moment of self-deprecation, endearing him to people otherwise making fun of him -- you may be laughing at him, but he’s laughing along, too. His PAC even raised more than $100,000 off the water sip, selling water bottles for $25 a pop.

Now Rubio is putting out photos of himself on a trip to Israel, toasting a water bottle with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; making cracks about it on the Senate floor during Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster; and joking about his “drinking problem” while giving speeches in Florida. 

Such moves echo how former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum reacted to jokes about his sweater vest: He owned the joke. His campaign sold vests, and slogans like “fear the vest” were commonplace. But after awhile, the fact that Santorum was fond of a garment known to be worn by high school science teachers just wasn’t as fun anymore.

So, yes, Rubio likes rap music and talks about it at a time when the GOP has an image of being out-of-touch. He’ll go on the Senate floor and quote “modern day poets” Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z. He’ll get some useful laughs from a well-placed water sip joke. But if he keeps it up, political junkies and regular people alike will roll their eyes more often than retweet his riffs with an #LOL. Be wary, because when you live by the meme, you die by the meme.

Elahe Izadi

Elahe Izadi writes about Congress and politics for National Journal, having previously covered Congress and K Street for the Influence Alley microsite. Prior to joining National Journal, she wrote and curated DCentric.org, an NPR Project Argo blog at WAMU 88.5 focused on race and class. Elahe was also part of the team behind D.C. local news start-up TBD.com, and covered everything from crime to local government for The Gazette, The Washington Post's chain of community newspapers in Maryland. Elahe graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in print journalism and African-American history. She was born in Washington, D.C., where she currently lives and regularly performs stand-up comedy.

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