Analyzing the convention speeches for their rhetorical import has become a hazardous sport, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the political climate is so partisan that any commentary is immediately classed as merely pro or con a particular candidate or party and further discussion is useless. Second, the rhetoric has become so pathetically paint-by-the-polling-numbers that frankly the speeches aren’t very interesting.
But nonetheless. The conventions are one of those increasingly rare moments in American rhetorical life when a general audience watches grownups speaking in public and thinks about what they’re seeing and hearing, however briefly. So the conventions are important enough to take a few moments to ponder the highs and lows and what that means for people interested in public speaking everywhere.
Where do we stand, then, after the Republican and Democratic hopefuls have given it their best shots and the confetti and balloons have covered their respective stages and the clean up of both has begun?
A few general observations first, and then some specifics about the A-list speakers.
The rhetoric has become relentlessly simple. I used to complain that there weren’t enough stories and life in convention speeches; now, that’s all there is. With the exception of Bill Clinton’s wonky-folksy policy and fact extravaganza, the speeches at both conventions were all about individual stories and heart, with virtually no ideas. Slogans and half-truths stood in for policy and ideas. When Romney talked about how he was going to get America headed in the right direction again, all he could muster on the subject was “Jobs. Lots of jobs.” Really. How?
And President Obama covered similar ground in a speech that was only marginally more specific and meaty than Romney’s when the President said, “”We’re making things again.” Yes, but how?
Politics is always a game of persuasion, first about the “why” and then the “how.” Both Romney and the President focused almost exclusively on the first and not the second. Understandable, because it’s the “how” that’s hard. Everyone wants a thriving economy, but how to get the country and the world moving again? Everyone wants a secure world without rogue nuclear threats, but how to ensure security? Everyone wants a well-educated country able to compete in the world, but how to bring our students up to snuff?
There was very little depth in both conventions; rhetorically, the speeches were a collection of one-liners calculated to appeal to the partisan crowd but without any real policy commitments behind them.
Logic has become a forgotten commodity. As the fact-checkers pointed out, Paul Ryan blamed a plant closing on Obama that happened when Bush was President. Romney and Ryan both tried hard to pin the blame for the deficits and debt on Obama when the largest percentage of them by far come from the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts – two fiscal train wrecks Obama inherited. For their part, the Democrats talk fiscal responsibility while proposing massive ‘investments’ in programs that are nice-sounding but obviously far too expensive given the current budgetary climate.
Of course, politicians have tried to square the logic circle and have their cake and eat it too for years, but we seemed to have reached a new low when – to take only one example among many – Ryan criticized Obama for failing to take heed of the bipartisan debt reduction committee’s recommendations while failing to mention that he had voted against it himself. Come on!
The slogans and posturing can’t quite conceal a lack of political courage on both sides. To say that politicians pander is to say that rain falls. But what’s really going on here is that we’re facing a highly polarized and cynical electorate in a very close election. It’s going to hinge on the outcomes of voting in a startlingly few states – maybe 6 or fewer. As a result, both parties are trying very hard to do the impossible: excite their respective bases without offending the few undecided voters left.
So the Democrats sound tough on defense and the Republicans are careful not to mention abortion or the borders. Both conventions’ speeches felt supremely poll-tested, with both sides trying to assume the mantle of leadership without saying what they’d leave out or behind.
In spite of the polarization of the two sides, in reality we have 2 middle-of-the-road candidates, cautious men who instinctively look to the middle ground, the compromise, and the possible in an era when those things have a bad name. The differences between the two leaders in actually governing – leaving aside the extreme rhetoric – would be measured in gnats’ eyelashes and the whiskers of water bugs.
When the positions of the two men are in fact very, very close, the rhetoric gets more and more extreme and the claims of difference more and more extravagant. But don’t be fooled. This is not a once-in-a-lifetime election all about a stark choice between political heaven and hell. This is a coin toss between an instinctive centrist and a businessman with few fixed political principles.
Politics at the top in America is still a man’s world. To my eye one of the most bizarre aspects of the conventions is that – at the top – they have become so identically formulaic. The Vice President (or would-be VP) talks about his humble roots and his admiration for the top man. The wife talks about her humble roots and how much she loves her man – and what a good man he is. And then the candidate talks about his humble roots (or as humble as he can make them) and how much he admires us ordinary Americans.
It’s all Kabuki theatre at one level – ritual nods to the half-remembered log cabin origin myth, ad hominem attacks, and appeals to our vanity as a country. But at another level, the sexual politics are still very primitive and need to change. It’s time that one or both of the parties nominated a women.
OK, what about the individual speeches? Partisanship makes detailed analyses impossible, but here are a few pros and cons for each of the A-list. If you’re a rabid Republican or Democratic partisan, please stop reading now.
The Republican Convention A-List
You can see the video here and the text here. A good, poised speaker. Oozing energy and confidence. Her only problem was that of the inexperienced actor: she started the speech on a high note, leaving her no place to go. So the speech felt forced in the end because she didn’t describe an emotional arc. Thematically there was too much asserting (“Tonight I want to talk to you about love,”) and not enough showing that love, for example.
Video and text. Ryan may look like Doogie Howser but don’t underestimate him. The guy is smart, charismatic and a very good speaker. In spite of his fresh-face pitch, he’s been around in Washington for 14 years or more. Unlike some politicians, he handles the attack-dog VP speaking duties quite comfortably. The only thing that could hold him back is his problems with logic. It’s dangerous to appeal to authenticity without actually being straightforward.
Video and text here. One of his best performances to date. Romney has improved a good deal as a speaker thanks to lots of practice. He was gracious and poised; he gave some credit to the other party, so as to check the bipartisan box, and then quickly got into taking the country in another direction. His issues as a speaker are that he has an emotional range all the way from A to B and a tendency to sound whiny and nasal. It will be interesting to see how his voice compares to Obama’s during the debates, when the two men go head to head.
A special nod to the worst convention speech of all time and a warning to all movie actors to beware Improv. The empty chair was an inspired idea gone horribly wrong. The speech itself is rambling, pointless, and ultimately embarrassing. Here’s the video, if you haven’t seen it.
The Democratic Convention A-List
Video here and text here. Michelle does better than any other political wife I’ve ever seen at being a person in her own right while still supporting her husband. Her speech was personal, graceful, and eloquent. She comes across as warm, real, and gracious. My only complaint? She’s so good that I wanted less of the personal and more of the political. Time to let her loose on policy!
Video here and text here. A speaker for another era. He’s completely at ease on the stage and he’s a polished speaker with great chops. Joe said warm, nice things about his wife, and said the expected things about the President. But he took too long to say them and he increasingly looks like a politician in a time warp, better suited for the 50s than today. Even in this authentic era, too much authenticity is a turn-off.
Video and text. We all know that candidate Obama had considerable charisma and formidable speaking skills. But those communication strengths have only occasionally been on display since he’s been President. You campaign in poetry and govern in prose, as Churchill said, and Obama is a classic example of the problem. The fire of the campaign gives way to the measured, careful phrasing of the office. His speech, like the others, was long on stories and short on policy, and given that he delivered it with all the passion of reading the phone book, why not give us some policy?
Video and text here. A special award to former President Clinton, who is perhaps the only speaker in US politics today who can make facts interesting. Just as Republicans and Democrats alike wax nostalgic about the Clinton era, with its bipartisanship and balanced budgets, so too should those interested in good political speaking be nostalgic for Clinton’s oratorical abilities and command of the facts. He makes everyone else look dumb.
For another interesting rhetorical analysis of Romney's and Obama's speeches, check out Shawn Ellis' word clouds. Fascinating stuff.