Lions, Dolphins, Pandas and the Great Political Mascot Debate

Does following a politician around in an animal costume really accomplish anything?

Republican National Committee
May 6, 2018, 8 p.m.

In the short lifespan of a campaign’s costumed critter, there is no greater honor than having its farcical, furry, and fake life validated by the opposing candidate. Like when Hillary Clinton signed a copy of her book Hard Choices and gave it to a giant orange squirrel wearing a blue t-shirt branded “Another Clinton in the White House is Nuts.” Or when President George H.W. Bush ejected a “Chicken George” heckler, who was mocking him for not debating Bill Clinton, from an event on a Midwest whistle-stop tour.

So far, the Republican Party’s “Lyin’ Lion Comey” hasn’t been so lucky. In his first couple of weeks, the Lion has seen his prey—former FBI director James Comey—sell over 600,000 copies of A Higher Loyalty. Meanwhile, he (is the Lion a he?) has lurked in the rain outside one Washington book party, and wandered the campus of Comey’s alma mater, William & Mary, as a CNN town hall proceeded undisturbed inside.

But the Republican National Committee has claimed victory. The launch of and “Lyin’ Lion” has delivered over $5 million worth of earned media on television, and reached millions of people online, according to spokesman Michael Ahrens. The stunt was covered on the front pages of the Fox News and CNN websites.

The Lyin’ Lion is descended from a long line of campaign creatures. Unions blow up inflatable rats as part of protests of employers across the country. The Nevada Democrats have reportedly used the same chicken costume in at least five campaigns. In 2004, the Republican Party sent three dolphins—“Flipper,” “Flopper,” and “Flapper”—to follow around John Kerry, sending people to a website noting the Democratic candidate’s varying positions on the Iraq War.

The party’s ploys are cost-effective, according to Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary and RNC spokesman. The “squirrel” that tracked down Clinton in 2014 was the same costume used in a campaign against ACORN, the voter-registration group, years earlier. He said the party found it in its headquarters’ basement.

“We’ve generated well into millions of dollars of earned media over the years for a very high return on investment for a very small cost,” said Spicer in an interview. “The idea that a presidential candidate has to interact with a furry squirrel shows that at least you’re getting their attention.”

And while the Lyin’ Lion has yet to meet the former FBI director, Spicer argues that the campaign has still been “extremely successful” at changing the conversation from Comey’s allegations to his record.

Aristotle once wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” It apparently is also in our nature to use animals in our politics. In 1874, Thomas Nast drew a now-famous cartoon with a donkey wearing a lion’s skin to scare a bunch of other animals, including an elephant labeled “The Republican Vote.” In that example and in countless others, lions are seen as fearsome animals, but the Republicans are now using it to brand Comey as a liar. While the alliteration is solid, a Lyin’ Lion is a puzzling moniker.

“Lions are not known at all for any sort of mendacity,” Dr. Craig Packer, director of the Lion Center at the University of Minnesota, told National Journal. “They are straightforward and honest to a fault.”

When asked to respond to the lion expert, Ahrens wrote, “With all due respect, not all lions are the same, lest we not forget Scar and his burning desire to be King of Pride Rock.”

Comey’s reputation has definitely taken a hit, even if it’s not clear whether the lion is the culprit. Since May 2017, Comey’s unfavorable rating has risen 8 points, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

Instead of calling him a flip-flopper, dodger, or wimp, the RNC is trying to undermine Comey’s integrity, alleging that he lied about his motives in the Clinton and Trump investigations and about whether he had improperly leaked or authorized the leak of sensitive information. Comey has pushed back strongly against those charges.

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Comey responded to the president repeatedly calling him a liar.

“What am I going to do?” Comey asked. “People have to make their own judgments about other people.”

“Whenever we would evaluate a witness you’d always say, ‘So what’s their body of work? So what are they like? What’s their pattern and practice? Is their story internally consistent? Did they document it?’ All of those questions,” he added. “But I’m not going to make that argument for myself.”

Some elected officials say that these sorts of stunts don’t make a difference. In the 2016 campaign cycle, the National Republican Senatorial Committee set up a Twitter page, YouTube video, and website alleging that Jason Kander, a Democrat running against Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri, pandered for money, featuring a person dressed in a panda suit and a bag of money. In a recent interview, Blunt said he didn’t think the “Pandering Panda” attack worked. “I never quite got it, and I don’t think anybody else did either,” he said.

In her book Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House, Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile said she thought the idea of dressing people up as Donald Duck to draw attention to the fact that Trump didn’t release his tax returns was idiotic. She wrote that the Disney Corporation objected to the use of the cartoon and could sue over the campaign’s use of it. She reportedly told Marc Elias, the senior lawyer for the Clinton campaign, to “get rid of the f—ing duck!”

The Lyin’ Lion campaign has taken flak from critics who note that President Trump repeatedly engages in falsehoods. The Washington Post recently reported that Trump has made 3,001 “false or misleading claims” since taking the oath of office.

Even some Republicans think that these sorts of attacks on the former FBI director are unseemly. In a recent interview, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said the RNC’s attacks were “small-minded,” “childish,” and improper. “People spend a lot of money giving to these organizations, and that’s what they do?” he asked.

But other Republicans and political observers say Comey has entered the political arena by selling a book that discusses his firing while special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is ongoing.

“The reason they’re going after Comey is he has some bite,” said John Geer, a professor of political science and the vice provost of academic and strategic affairs at Vanderbilt University.

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