Although the battle for the Democratic nominee is still raging away, it seems that the attack points employed by both candidates are the same old war horses that we've seen for months now. Hillary is an uninspiring wonk with poor judgment (read: Iraq) and too many tendrils reaching into the pockets of big business; Obama is inexperienced and makes up for his lack of policy specifics with passionate talk. This negative narrative has become conventional wisdom in the campaign cycle, and the more the candidates try to distance themselves from their opponents' frame of criticism, the more embedded they become in a race to deny while simultaneously highlighting exactly those qualities ascribed to them by their competitors and the press.
Since Obama's crushing victories in the primaries on February 9th and 12th, Clinton has been ratcheting up the intensity of her now familiar attacks on Obama's inability to get things done and "manage the bureaucracy." In particular, she has seized upon Obama's abilities to captivate an audience as - oddly - a negative. Yes, the man's talents in oratory are really just a shield hiding the candidate from real administrative skills. Echoing her husband's "fairytale" jibes, Clinton said last week:
Speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night.
The subtext for these comments and others like them emanating out of the Clinton camp is the notion that commanding, inspirational rhetoric is nothing more than empty talk. Instead of policy specifics and the nitty-gritty of governance, smooth-talkers like Mr. Obama hoodwink the masses - many of which are young - into a naive belief in "false hope." The message, as noted in a NYT article from 2/17: "My opponent gives speeches; I offer solutions." Much of this constructed dichotomy between talk on one hand and action on the other has been manufactured by the Clinton campaign to counter the irrefutable reality that Obama is the superior orator. Instead of accepting the nuanced reading that one can be both an effective administrator and a skilled rhetorician, Clinton has adopted a black and white perspective that works political marvels. Indeed, in Clinton's narrative, her inferior speech-giving abilities come off as an asset, for lesser rhetorical ability = greater administrative acumen. In Clinton's smart political framework, therefore, Obama's talent is a liability.
This perception is of course not lost on Mr. Obama, who has dealt with such accusations in two very different ways. In response to the rising urgency of Clinton's attacks, he has offered a very frank disclaimer: "Don’t be fooled by this talk about speeches versus solutions. It’s true, I give a good speech. What do I do? Nothing wrong with that." At the same time, however, Obama over the last week has shifted gears noticeably in his stump speeches. While the big applause lines have still had their show-stopping moments, he's begun inserting more policy talk into all the unbridled inspiration. As the Times put it, he's showing off his "inner-wonk." More than just change his approach as a response to criticism, Obama has dealt a political master-stroke: he is simultaneously defanging Clinton's argument (he's weak on details) while also discrediting it (it's not a good argument anyways).
The political maneuverings of the election cycle are not the topic of this post, however. The complex pas de deux that the Democratic contenders have been engaged in over the last couple months highlights an interesting component to the political discourse, and one that will be making many more appearances on the road to November: rhetoric.
The term "rhetoric" gets a bad rap. I would be willing to bet that if you asked a lot of news-watching, reasonably well-informed citizens on the street if "rhetoric" is a negative or a positive term, the majority would peg it as negative. Indeed, Clinton's attacks on Obama are just one front in the media where the idea of rhetoric is negatively cast. Again, our familiar false dichotomy is at play in these characterizations: if you talk the talk, then you probably can't walk the walk.
But what is rhetoric really? Simply put, rhetoric is the art of skillful persuasion through the use of language. It's a concept that has had a central place in Western culture since the Greeks, where it was actually afforded the status of an art. Aristotle even wrote a seminal treatise on the topic, complete with a detailed break-down of the various components of a good speech, many of which apply quite well to any of Obama's rousing performances. Good rhetoric, said Aristotle, should be composed of three central elements: to set the stage, a speaker must have the proper ethos, or background, perspective, and credibility; he must grab the audience's emotions (pathos); and he must appeal to reason and logic (logos). In later years, rhetoric developed into different schools of thought, and the Romans codified it further. For over a thousand years, it was a central part of the educational program, and during the Middle Ages it was part of the trivium along with grammar and logic; to study the higher liberal arts like philosophy, mathematics and music, one first had to master the trivium. And the importance of classical rhetoric didn't stop there; in addition to influencing the ways these societies communicated, it deeply impacted the arts. Much of the Baroque aesthetic in German music, for example, was formed by applying rhetorical rules to sound. Like a carefully crafted argument, it was thought that a piece of music should employ devices to both emotionally move and intellectually convince the listener. In this capacity, JS Bach was the Obama of his day.
So what is the value of rhetoric? Indeed, rhetoric has not been such a well-respected component of our culture for centuries because it teaches you how to mislead crowds, an argument out of Mrs. Clinton's book. It is important because how one communicates their ideas is a wonderful reflection of how coherent, organized, intelligent, and convincing those ideas are. Rhetoric is not only the art of speaking: it is the art of thinking. A master orator, then, is not merely dazzling the captive audience with empty talk - he is persuading them of the veracity of his ideas.
Take George W. Bush. I'm not going to list off all the mutilations of the English language that have poured from this man's mouth - the reader is no doubt familiar with many of these. But beyond simple mangling of syntax and vocabulary, Bush's talk is all too good an indicator of what's going on upstairs. It's an embarrassment watching Bush struggle through speeches (a failure of ethos), repeating himself time and time again on talking points that don't have one iota of substance ("Freedom" is a good meaningless word that destroys pathos through its opportunistic insincerity and annihilates logos through its very meaninglessness). We should have known watching the man debate back in 2000 that he would make an awful president. His lack of rhetorical command reflects his utter lack of curiosity, intellectual depth, and clarity of ideas. No wonder his advisers had such an easy time hijacking his mind to parrot their extremist beliefs.
But powerful rhetoric is more than a window into a candidate's mind. It is also an essential tool for reaching consensus within a large and fractious group. When Obama talks about "one America," I believe him, and according to polls, so do many Americans (he is the Democratic candidate most well liked by the Republicans). The strength of his nonpartisan convictions truly are inspirational, and they inspire because they offer a real, tangible opportunity to heal long-festering political rifts. I should make it clear at this point that I am not a Obama maniac: my support was originally with Edwards. Nevertheless, the "hope" in his message is real, and Americans are responding to it. Rhetoric is the driving force behind his momentum.
Skillful oratory also plays an important role in educating both the citizenry and the political establishment. As Jonathan Alter writes in this week's Newsweek, the president is "Educator-in-Chief" (Roosevelt's phrase) just as much as he or she is the Commander-in-Chief. Central to enacting big change is the tool of language itself. As Alter writes:
All presidents who achieve big change have been first-rate communicators in the theater of the presidency. No FDR "fireside chats," no New Deal. No "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"—and the Berlin wall likely stays up for a while longer, whatever Ronald Reagan's other efforts.
This point was also driven home on All Things Considered today by Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice. Brinkley pointed out that all great American presidents have been great speakers. Without a talent for rhetoric, how can one individual capture the attention of the nation and the world enough to make change happen? Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK...they were all master orators.
Where rhetorical advantage can lead a candidate astray often comes in the form of making promises that are unrealistic, a point of which Obama has sometimes been guilty. We should certainly be on the lookout for this. But inspiration is not a rhetorical fault. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, we should not undermine Obama's abilities purely because he inspires people with fiery pathos - if you go to his website, you'll find that the logos is there as well (although not as fully elucidated as Clinton's or Edwards's). Wonkiness just doesn't make for as electrifying a speech. And in the theater of politics, the speech is the thing.