Why You Loved Clinton’s Speech

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Speeches these days are noisy and pitiful.

I struggle to recall a contemporaneous speech that seemed relevant for more than a day. Yet, President Clinton’s DNC speech came up over and over last week. I overheard a discussion about it in the elevator on the way to my office the next morning. Albeit predictably, snippets of it were on the 24-hour news networks every time I walked by a television in the lobby. I went out to lunch and the group at the next table over were talking about it. I went to a fundraiser for State Senator David Johnson and you better believe I heard about it there.

Not so for any other speech these last two weeks (and there was no shortage of speeches at the DNC and RNC).

So why was Clinton’s speech so good? In short, he filled a vacuum in political discourse. He dared to do what is lacking in most speeches. Here’s what I noticed.

Substance

For three reasons, speeches from members of both parties are little more than a gloss. One reason is intentional. Walking step by step with listeners through the details of an idea or a policy exposes the idea to greater scrutiny, potentially exposing the speaker to stinging criticism. Sprinkling even a little substance into your speech then takes courage.

Second, and perhaps most often, many who have stumbled upon the opportunity to project their voice to the public are insufficiently knowledgeable about the content of their message to do otherwise. They may be passionate about what they believe, but have failed to understand both the details of their idea or the arguments on the other side. So instead of getting an informative and persuasive speech, you get a lot of yelling.

Third, most people who actually are knowledgeable about a subject lack the ability to cross the bridge to those who are not. Bringing your listeners where you are by beginning where they are is an enormously difficult task. It requires understanding the understanding and assumptions of your audience, building a new foundational understanding if necessary, and then, and only then, paving the way forward to where you want your audience to be.

Few people do this well. Instead, I generally observe one of two outcomes from knowledgeable speakers. Either they lose their listeners early and forever or they punt it and educate worse than the noise makers.

Clinton is a master at educating the public on the big stage. On Wednesday, his attention to wonkish details about public policy, while still remaining interesting and understandable was a display of true oratory genius. It demonstrated that he understood (1) his subject matter and (2) his listeners.

As said, the first step is laying (and often fixing) the foundation. For many voters, this foundation consisted of Ryan’s, Rubio’s, and Romney’s speeches at the RNC. Viewers listening to their speeches received the traditional caricature of the Democratic party, a collection of trite beliefs that, while not new, have dominated the national discussion for the last three-and-a-half years. So, for the heart of Clinton’s speech to register, Clinton had to start with the traditional Republican narrative.

“In Tampa a few days ago, we heard a lot of talk,” began Clinton, “oh about how the President and the Democrats don’t believe in free enterprise and individual initiative, how we want everyone to be dependent on the government, how bad we are for the economy.”

Then, Clinton made perhaps his most memorable statement of the night. According to Clinton, in the last 52 years, 24 million private-sector jobs were created under Republican administrations while 42 million private-sector jobs were create under Democratic administrations.

This is an astounding statement, blowing the doors off the traditional notions about the Democratic Party and the economy.

We all filter every message through our assumptions and stereotypes. Therefore, if Clinton had not addressed these basic foundational issues at the outset, even though he could have said all the right words about President Obama’s very reasonable policies, many people who had just watched the RNC would basically hear Clinton talk and words would register: “PRESIDENT OBAMA AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY ARE COMMUNISTS.”

Clinton went further. The discrepancy in private-sector job creation is no accident, but the predictable result of the Democratic Party’s modern emphasis on the middle class. A strong middle class, according to Clinton, is a good thing for every economic class.

One more false notion about President Obama and the Democratic Party had to be changed—the notion that Obama is the cause of the political gridlock and division we see today. Clinton with little effort wasted no time placing the blame on the “faction that now controls the Republican party.”

Just in the last couple of elections, they defeated two distinguished Republican senators because they dared to cooperate with Democrats on issues important to the country, even national security. They beat a Republican congressman with almost a hundred percent voting record on every conservative score, because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him. Boy, that was a nonstarter, and they threw him out.

This was an effective way of driving the point home. At this point, Clinton had squarely addressed the two false assumptions that were the bedrock of the RNC and which would all but block receipt of his entire message. The listeners now had a proper foundation for an in-depth discussion of how President Obama’s policies were aligned with those goals and his spirit of cooperation.

And by the end of Clinton’s speech, they got it.

Context

One irony of the information age is that, while information not only is available but virtually rains on us, we struggle to place information in context. We have mountains of facts but little meaning.

8.1 percent of adults who are looking for work have none. Even higher is the percentage underemployed. Jobs hard to find and are uncertain to remain. These conditions, bad for everyone but the challenger to an incumbent president, dominate the news. So Clinton in his folksy, yet incisive way, summarized the Republican position, but with a little context: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.

Perfect.

Then a humble but crucial statement: “No president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” We are used to recessions coming and going; those that have lingered, such as in the Carter years, were easily traceable to poor policies.

So it’s natural to assume the same thing here. Especially when Romney and Co. insist that they would have ended the recession earlier than Obama. What Clinton was able to do was (1) impress on the listener the scale of the problem inherited by Obama and (2) connect the would-be policies of Romney with those of his most recent Republican predecessor, those policies that caused the problems in the first place.

Obama, in all fairness, has been attempting to do this for four years. However, Clinton has a little more credibility in saying it because he’s not running for reelection. And Clinton is simply better at saying it.

Truthfulness

I already know where some of your minds are going when I mention truthfulness and Bill Clinton together. So let’s get right down to it.

Bill Clinton lied about the Monica Lewinsky affair. It was wrong.

Let’s now move on.

Clinton gave the fact checkers their easiest night. His speech was long, dense, and full of assertions that were overwhelmingly favorable to the Democratic position. Too much of this and one is likely to get a “Pants-On-Fire” score from Politifact. Yet, Clinton’s factual assertions—even his most damning ones—overwhelmingly check out.

I’m glad to live in an age of fact checkers. Certainly a speaker can ignore them and still entertain a crowd. But you’re not going to persuade people to change their minds about  anything without satisfying the fact checkers.

Every once in a blue moon, the fact checkers get it wrong. But show me a politician with a better record.

Demeanor

 Of the four things I highlight here, three are primarily substantive. This is intentional. Speeches that lack substance, even the most well-delivered ones, will never ever be important or meaningful. Simply put, substance is more important than form.

But form is important.

Clinton can flat out work a crowd. The man had the audience laughing out of their seats within a minute of speaking. He came prepared with his teleprompter, but strayed from it and ad libbed on several occasions.

Clinton was confident and perfectly willing to attack the challenging side. But a Clinton attack is different from most. A Clinton attack is less inflamed, less rhetorical, and more of a “no duh” kind of attack — a this-is-such-simple-arithmetic kind of attack. You’re aren’t necessarily mad at the other side; you just find yourself laughing at them. Tirades have their place, but only when people will actually be affected by the tirade. A discussion on tax policy will never be one of those times.

Further, if you listen to Clinton in an interview, in a candid conversation, in a speech to a local charitable association, or to the DNC, the tone basically sounds the same. In other words, when Clinton gives a speech, he doesn’t suddenly begin to sound like a political robot. He sounds like a human being, albeit a very intelligent and highly informed one. Good speeches should be clear, efficient, and polished–but not much more. Otherwise, just talk to people and enjoy the spotlight!

Why I’m Not a Republican

January 11, 2012 § 16 Comments

I supported Barack Obama last election. My support for him was not because I’m some hippie socialist liberal. Admittedly, I have a few views that you could call liberal, but I have many conservative views as well. This writer is pro gun rights, pro capitalism, pro life, and pro death penalty. My support for Obama was as much an aversion to Sarah Palin as anything. To me, her nomination was a signal that the leadership of the Republican Party had become unserious about effective governing. And since Obama entered office, I have been pleased to find him far less liberal than — guess who? — the Republican machine made and has continued to make him out to be. He’s been less liberal than even I expected. As Obama’s first term nears its end, I have found my patience for the Republican party, which has explicitly placed getting Obama out of office above any bonafide attempt to construct agreeable and effective policy, all but completely deteriorate.

So it can hardly be said that I was very interested in the Republican debates this time around. I have no interest in listening to a back-and-forth about such meaningless titles as who is the “most conservative” or who would really “repeal Obamacare”—the only government takeover of healthcare in history that did not actually take over healthcare at all—or how Obama hates America, etc. etc.. However, in the midst of each increasingly feckless debate, I would hear this strangely refreshing voice coming from the far corner. That voice belonged to John Huntsman.

Having heard a fair amount now from Huntsman, I have found him to be the most impressive candidate to come out of the Republican party in years—thoughtful, articulate, even proven. I thought, this is a man who really has it: A man who believes that a strong capitalism is the most important part of an effective economy, but that government is not the enemy of capitalism; a man who acknowledges the obvious—that greenhouse gasses are proliferating at an astounding rate and that they have the potential to fundamentally disrupt our way of life, but that our economy can continue to prosper while we address climate change; a man who deeply opposes abortion, yet does not believe that the government is an effective means of spreading Christianity; a man who has incisively surmised the effects of an inevitably more powerful China and the geopolitical importance of the South China Sea in the coming years; and a man who was ready to transform our educational systems to meet the demands of the 21st century. What a candidate!

I really thought Huntsman was going do well. I guess I assumed that, while the most extreme pockets of the Republican party were currently the loudest, over the course of the debates more moderate pockets of the Republican party would hear the brilliance of this man and finally have someone to rally behind who actually supported their views. I assumed that this wave of extremism, anti-government sentiment, and non-compromise was a fad. I suddenly found myself optimistic about the Republican party.

I was wrong.

Huntsman’s support among Republicans nationally currently sits at 2%. He has been the only candidate not to surge at any time leading up to the primaries. Huntsman devoted practically his whole campaign to doing well in the New Hampshire primary, a relatively moderate state in the Republican primary. Last night, he finished 3rd with a meager 17%.

I’m afraid that Huntsman is going to be a case study for future Republican candidates. They will take from this primary how effective it is to recite over and over the same platitudes about smaller and small government; less and less taxes; Ronald Reagan; bigger military; the other candidates not being conservative enough; that I’m the most conservative candidate—how conservative?—THE MOST CONSERVATIVE!; and hyperbole about the Democrats as evil, America-haters, God-haters who want European style socialism, and who aren’t just wrecking our economy but want to! And they will be struck by how ineffective it is to appropriate anything that ever was said by the opposing party or to exhibit even the faintest tinges of balance or moderation.

Unfortunately, Huntsman has been a case study for me too. Because of Huntsman, I now know how I would fare if I ever ran as a Republican. I’m not going to be a part of that party; It represents me in no way. I only feel bad for such a brilliant man like Huntsman who had to serve as my lab rat.

Thoughts on Class Warfare in America

December 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the best traits of most Americans is that they don’t disdain people who work hard and go on to become successful.

For a twenty-five year old, I’ve been lucky to have an unusually broad set of experiences. I’ve worked in a factory, on a farm, on an overnight construction shift for a department store, on hot rooftops running electrical wire, in a store bagging groceries, in my car delivering pizzas all over town, in the district office of a U.S. congressman, in the legal offices of several state agencies, and in some of the most high-level policy meetings among some of the most well-connected individuals in my home state of Arkansas. But beyond just jobs, I’ve lead Bible studies in jails, in the homes of millionaires, and everywhere in between. By virtue of being the son of a father who served twenty-four years in our armed forces, I was privileged to travel and meet people from all walks of life all over the country and the world (I was born in the Philippines). By virtue of being the son of a mother who is the most natural networker in the world who knows virtually every businessperson and public figure within an hour, I’ve been blessed to benefit from the network that almost from scratch she has put in hard work to establish. I’ve played golf at private country clubs in foursomes with CEOs as well as with less-well-off people on some of the cheapest municipal tracks you could not imagine. I spent one night wining and dining with people who will make more in their life than my whole family several times over and literally spent the next night at Wendy’s with a homeless man—a Vietnam veteran who had just lost his job as a trucker. If I had the patience here, I could with little difficulty dig for even more diverse experiences and acquaintances.

Let me drive this point home though: No matter where or with whom I’ve found myself, one constant has been respect for those who through hard work and integrity find themselves successful. What exceptions I have found to this have neither been frequent nor influential.

It is on this background that I find myself at odds with and even offended by the notion that there is a class warfare taking place in America. I don’t want to speak for the whole “occupy” movement because it includes many viewpoints. And I have no intention of writing the definitive article here on the merits of returning our highest income tax bracket to what it was in the 90s (39% from today’s 36%). But I absolutely want to see blotted out of the debate the phrase, “class warfare.” By an overwhelming majority, those advocating for our top income earners to be taxed what the top income earners were taxed in the 90s (when our top income earners were without question doing quite well) are not doing so because they disdain success. Class warfare is simply not in the DNA of Americans.

It is beyond question that our middle class is thinning out. A thinning middle class is a concern for every income class—for the lower class because it is into the middle class that the poor seek to enter and for the upper class because it is the middle class who consumes their goods and services. How to solve this problem is the subject of legitimate arguments on both sides of the Republican-Democrat divide. You might believe that a tax increase would discourage job creation. It’s a fair argument. And if this is what you believe, then by all means make this argument. But do not dismiss the viewpoint of the other side as mere class warfare. All too often this has proven to be a rhetorical device that has permitted opponents of the tax increase to ignore the merits of the underlying argument.

When making criticisms, criticize arguments. Not imagined characterizations of those making them.

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