Who are Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd?

Our story today is about a bizarre but useful political theory. I’ve been wanting to talk about this since April when I started the show, but have been holding off until we’re closer to the real big-time debates before bringing this concept onto the show.

Now the name of this theory is, no kidding, Bugs Bunny versus Elmer Fudd. I’m gonna give you a teaser on the theory before we back up and explain it. Here’s the short version of the theory: In American presidential elections, we usually have two candidates. One of them, compared to the other, is more like Bugs Bunny. The other is more like Elmer Fudd. And when they debate, those characteristics become very visible. And here’s the kicker: Americans like to vote for Bugs Bunny. I know that sounds weird, but stick with me here.

Okay. We have to define some terms here. I know some of y’all will say you know exactly who these cartoon characters are, but a lot of you don’t. They are both from the Looney Tunes cartoons, which were created from the 1930s through the 1960s. Today, I’m going to focus on just a few key characters, but it’s totally worth doing more research if you’re curious. There is a sample cartoon linked in the show notes.

So our main character is Bugs Bunny. He is rabbit from Brooklyn—for some reason—and I tried for a long time to summarize who he is…like what his defining personality traits are. And this is subjective, because it has do a lot with cartoons I watched as a kid, and how I thought of them then. But basically, Bugs Bunny is a mischievous, smart, funny character. He cracks jokes, nothing seems to bother him too much. He seems to know he’s in a cartoon, and he winks at the audience because they know it too. That’s key to understanding Bugs Bunny: You’re both in on the joke together.

I’m going to read a quote by Bob Clampett on Bugs Bunny, written from the perspective of Bugs Bunny himself, as a self-description. By the way, Clampett directed three different cartoons that pitted Bugs Bunny against Elmer Fudd specifically. Okay:

“Some people call me cocky and brash, but actually I am just self-assured. I'm nonchalant, im­perturbable, contemplative. I play it cool, but I can get hot under the collar. And above all I'm a very 'aware' character. I'm well aware that I am appearing in an animated car­toon....
And sometimes I chomp on my carrot for the same reason that a stand-up comic chomps on his cigar. It saves me from rushing from the last joke to the next one too fast. And I sometimes don't act, I react. And I always treat the contest with my pursuers as 'fun and games.' When momentarily I appear to be cornered or in dire danger and I scream, don't be [concerned] – it's actually a big put-on. Let's face it, Doc. I've read the script and I al­ready know how it turns out.”

Okay, so that’s Bugs Bunny. Now, let’s define his primary antagonist, Elmer Fudd.

Elmer Fudd is human. He’s an older man, often shown wearing a hunting outfit and carrying a rifle or a shotgun. In the Looney Tunes world, Fudd is constantly hunting rabbits—specifically Bugs Bunny. And he never manages to catch them.

Fundamentally, Elmer Fudd is overly serious, and, here’s the key, he is easily frustrated. He’s on a mission—he’s trying to hunt that rabbit, trying to get that done—but he is not what I would call a fun guy. He is constantly annoyed, he is visibly perturbed, stomping around, and as Wikipedia points out, Fudd generally ends up injuring himself while on the hunt. And by the way, Fudd has an unusual speech pattern, and Bugs Bunny has a Brooklyn accent, but neither of those is significant to this political theory.

All right, so here we have the setup. We have the very serious hunter, who’s all dressed up and out to get the rabbit—but he just can’t get it done, maybe because he’s so serious. He’s kind of his own enemy in that sense. And then we have the rabbit, who is too quick for the hunter. And that quickness is not just physical—it’s kind of an intellectual thing. The rabbit doesn’t really believe that the hunter is going to beat him. And he’s right. Because of that, the rabbit is not really in danger. Because he knows the hunter is serious but prone to failure, he can turn that seriousness against his opponent. And the whole time, as we watch this, and that is the essential plot of most of these Bugs Bunny versus Elmer Fudd cartoons.

Now, let’s take a quick break and then talk about what the heck this could possibly mean in politics.

The political theory of Bugs Bunny vs. Daffy Duck

In 2008, journalist and commentator Jeff Greenfield wrote an article for Slate. In that article, he laid out a political theory using Bugs Bunny versus a different antagonist.

The article is titled “Bugs Bunny vs. Daffy Duck.” Now, without getting into a whole thing, let’s just stipulate that Daffy Duck is also an easily-frustrated character. He’s also sometimes portrayed as clinically insane, but that does vary from cartoon to cartoon. The point is, he’s actually a lot like Elmer Fudd. He’s on a mission, but not quite capable of accomplishing it, because he gets flustered. Bugs Bunny always wins against both Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

Anyway, back in 2008, Greenfield wrote his article a few months before Obama won the Democratic nomination. Let me read the opening paragraphs here.

“How did we reach the point at which Sen[ator] Clinton, the clear Democratic front-runner six months ago, needs clear wins in Texas and Ohio to mute the calls for her to end her campaign?
There’s no unified field theory that answers this question: You can give more or less weight to Obama’s political magnetism, the tactical and strategic miscalculations of the Clinton campaign, the delegate-allocation rules that weakened the punch of Clinton’s big-state wins, the crucial difficulty of a former first lady who embodies Restoration competing in an election in which change is the watchword. And here’s another explanation for this remarkable reversal of fortune, one that represents for me one of the few really reliable rules of presidential political warfare: Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck.”

From there, Greenfield makes an argument that, within that context, Obama was more like Bugs Bunny and Clinton was more like Daffy Duck. Now, here’s one thing to be SUPER CLEAR ON—you may very well disagree, and that’s fine, that is part of how this works, this is ALL in the eye of the beholder—but in his original article, Greenfield wrote:

“Go back to 1960, the first campaign in which television was the clear dominant medium. John “Bugs” Kennedy was cool, restrained, ironic. Richard “Daffy” Nixon was brooding, suspicious, scowling. Look at 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s sunny approach to the campaign and to the world (“Our best days are yet to come”) stood in sharp contrast to President Jimmy Carter’s talk of a crisis of the spirit. […]
Or think about 2000, when George W. Bush suggested a candidate who could easily live with defeat, as opposed to Al Gore, who seemed wound far tighter. In the most memorable debate moment that year, Al Gore stood up and began walking behind Bush as Bush was answering a question, almost as if Gore were stalking his opponent (the better to dramatize the height difference, one Gore aide told me later). Bush looked over his shoulder, offered a slight “Oh, hi there!” nod, and the debate was effectively over. It was a classic Bugs vanquishing.
Not every campaign offers such a contrast. And sometimes political figures change their cartoon stripes: Bill Clinton in 1992 was clearly Bugs. This year, he has turned into Daffy as Hillary’s surrogate, with his red-faced battling, his assaults on the electoral process in Nevada and now in Texas, his warning of “Don’t let them take it away in the dark!””

So I first heard about this theory on a podcast called Do By Friday, on which game designer Max Temkin described it a little differently. In his telling, he substituted Elmer Fudd for Daffy Duck, and said he had heard the story from Matt Harding, who is well-known for his YouTube dancing videos. Now, to my mind, the Elmer Fudd comparison actually works better than Daffy Duck for various reasons.

Why? Well, Fudd is simple: He has clear objectives, he follows logic, but he is also overly serious. So in my thinking, this analogy works better if you swap in Elmer Fudd in place of Daffy Duck.

Now as you may recall, the 2008 election came down to Obama vs. Senator John McCain. And I would argue that McCain, specifically in the debates, was more like Elmer Fudd. In those debates, Obama clearly evoked a kind of Bugs Bunny energy. He was smart, he was unflappable, and he just seemed a little elevated from the whole thing. In the same way that George W. Bush kind of winked at Al Gore back in 2000, Obama just seemed to be having a little more fun with the whole thing. And, guess what, Americans like to vote for Bugs Bunny. Now, that’s not the only reason Obama was elected, let’s be super-clear, but I think this is one way to examine these unmeasurable things, like likability or electability. Bugs Bunny is fundamentally likable.

So what we have here is an analogy to understand American presidential politics. You see it very much on display during debates, in which polarization and conflict are essentially the point. A debate is about seeing differences. So if we’re going to see a debate, we might start asking, okay, which one of these people is Bugs Bunny, if any?

You might have a whole stage full of Elmer Fudds, which was arguably what we saw in the Republican primaries in 2016. Now, sure, there were probably some more Looney Tunes characters in that mix, maybe Marvin the Martian and the Tasmanian Devil, or whatever. But Trump in comparison actually stood out as more like a Bugs Bunny character. He was doing his own thing, he was chomping his own carrot, and that comparative reality is what matters here.

It’s impossible to say who is Bugs Bunny all on their own. But it IS possible to say, given these two people, who is more like Bugs Bunny and who is more like Elmer Fudd.

So let’s take one more break and wrap this up.

How to use this Looney Tunes analogy in political debates

So we’ve defined the basic analogy here and laid out the terms. If you have a one-on-one debate between two politicians, in many cases, not all cases, but a lot of them, you can identify one of those candidates as being more like Bugs Bunny. And heaven help you if the other one seems like Elmer Fudd.

One way you can use this analogy is to go back in your own memory and try to compare previous sets of debaters just based on what you remember—what your impression was of the people in a given debate, regardless of whether you voted for Bugs Bunny or not. If you think of, say, John Kerry and George W. Bush. Which candidate was having more fun, and which one was deadly serious, stomping around and trying to get a shot off?

Think about Obama and McCain. You can go back and find YouTube videos of their debates, and that might help you remember the dynamics there.

Think about Bush vs. Gore. There’s a classic SNL sketch about their first debate, and it’s where the terms “lockbox” and “strategery” come from. If you watch that sketch—and yeah, that’s obviously not the actual debate—you can get a real sense of how people perceived those two candidates—and perception is what matters here. Gore comes across as stuffy, when compared to Bush. Kind of Fudd-like, you know? Now, I voted for him, but I can totally see how people would look at those candidates and see Bush as more of the Bugs Bunny figure.

At the time, there were all these discussions of likability, and the way they often put it was: Which of these candidates would you rather have a beer with? That’s yet another classic political question that gets at these issues of personality and likability. Now, in that case it was a flawed analogy because Bush wasn’t drinking, but still.

When you watch the debates tomorrow, and you start to think about how these dynamics play out, I want you to try this analogy on for size. I’m not saying it works for everybody, but it definitely works for me.

Now here’s the thought experiment. Look at any given Democratic presidential candidate and ask yourself: If this person went up on a debate stage against President Trump in the general election, would this person, in that comparison, be more like Bugs Bunny? Or would they be more like Elmer Fudd?

Well, that is it for a somewhat unusual episode of the Election Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. All right, as you know, we have a DNC debate tomorrow. Tomorrow’s show will be back to our normal format and we’ll have a bunch of debate prep. Also, as usual we’ll have Debate Bingo on the night of the event. If you are a Twitter person and you want to follow the Debate Bingo stuff, check out the Twitter account @ElectionPodcast. I’ll be tweeting there most of Tuesday night. As always, thanks for listening, and I will talk to y’all tomorrow right before the debate.