Grading the Speeches – Republican Convention 2012

Many political speeches don’t matter, but Charlie Cook says that Mitt had a unique window to move ahead tonight.  How do you grade the speeches from Tampa? Pundits bemoaned that conventions don’t play well to prime-time audiences, lacking all the drama and riveting performances of say, live debates.  But they do offer the chance for some old school oratory–the kind that does seem a little out-of-touch with our screen-focused, individualistic times. I’ll take conventions and debates over most of what passes for television entertainment.

I look for the following elements in an effective speech:

  • organization – effective structure, creates relevance, includes effective quotes
  • voice – pitch/quality, range/volume/rate, enunciation/pronunciation
  • non-verbal – distance, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, body movements/gestures, fear management, and avoidance of filler-words.
  • content – substance, accuracy, personal insight, perspective, and use of humor.
  • persuasion – control the tone, define the problem, anticipate objections, provide evidence, demonstrate action, and nail it with clinchers.

And so, in keeping with Globo Diplo’s tradition of reviewing speeches, here is how I see a few of the highs and lows:

  • Chris Christie Big expectations for the big guy who brings New Jersey style to the big tent. He exudes charisma and is a public speaking pro.  As Post Leadership explains, he focuses on “leadership” a lot–and eventually even mentions Mitt!  And according to WSJ, he’s the blunt, bulldozer, anti-Romney” and quite possibly the future vision of the party–if he can keep it all together.  B+
  • Mia Love   The rock-star Republican who is Hatian-American and running for Congress got her four minutes of speaking fame.  Oh, and she’s Mormon–add that to the moment du jour.  Bottom line: Positive, personal, and appealing but not game changing for anyone except for her–if she wins her Utah race.  A-
  • Ann Romney – Too effusive?  Strongest when she stuck to the personal.  Didn’t seem as credible when speaking about the poor according to one commentator.  Fashionistas liked the dress, which for women is an unfair standard but nevertheless something the media discusses.  A-
  • John McCain Is this validation for why he didn’t win last time around?  Harsh, but so says Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. He’s the foreign policy guy who used to be the reformer guy. C, but he doesn’t care about grades.
  • Condolezza Rice – A serious speech from a formidable speaker. (Her “live your dreams” Kennedy/Wheatley speech at the Marriott Center a year ago brought down the house.)  Condi adds some FP “clout“, that was “statesmanlike, stirring and secure” [Post Leadership].  Topics covered: Foreign policy. Trade. Energy. Immigration. The economy. Education.  Maybe 2016? Easy A
  • Paul Ryan – The Veep candidate channels Reagan (the Jack Kemp version) which makes me happy.  His rhetoric powerfully reframes the debate, “saving Medicare,” but ultimately should be seen as an ideological hunk o’ meat for the base, as well as the man with the plan, strong on specifics. Sally Kohn on Fox News pans it as”dazzling, deceiving, distracting.” Others say even harsher things. Ryan has a compelling voice, good delivery but odd facial features. Disappointing for lacking in”truthiness.”  B-
  • Clint Eastwood – Not the most agile at improv (to be diplomatic), but tried to puncture the Obama balloon. (Think: empty chair?) Really funny, at times, nervous laughter from the audience at others, and “surreal” to consider altogether–and just when I thought it was going off the rails–he managed to hold on.  Barely. Maybe. Was it a risky move or an organizing gaffe? Who cares.  It was fun.  Party on! D+
  • Marco Rubio – American exceptionalism is a penchant of the Republicans and worth reading as a serious idea.  Meanwhile, Rubio did a pretty good job selling it.  Smooth transitions, near-perfect delivery, and played well to the hometown crowd. Worthy B+

As a sidenote, I was moved by Ted Oparowski’s story of their dying son–and felt like I was in a parallel universe, a moving Sacrament Meeting. This appears to be part of the humanizing strategy but also a different way to bring Romney’s faith to the forefront.  I think it may have been effective in the broader context.

And the Candidate’s speech?  How do you assess Mitt Romney‘s most important political speech to date? A few of my observations:

  • He delivered a humanizing speech with a lot of heart… and more soul that usual. Lots of personal details that worked.
  • Some sharply honed arguments to make the case vs. Obama.
  • “Deeply personal” mixed with national images–according to Krauthammer.  Juxtuposes Obama saving the world and apologizing and failing while Mitt will help your family. Powerfully written and delivered well.
  • Shoutout to the Family Proclamation at the start. (First Mormon moment among many, including life in Michigan, moving to Boston, and more.)
  • Investing Church pension funds line was genuinely funny and well-delivered.  Reinforced that he can be funny, among others.
  • Tone was sincere and authentic both in voice and body language.  (Tears in eyes were softening.)
  • Hand motions were a bit robotic, but facial gestures were perfect, looking up and to the left/right across the teleprompter.  Natural.
  • My concerns that he would appear to be trying to hard were unsubstantiated this time.  He seems to have kept his energy focused and in check.

A great discussion on Talk of the Nation yesterday spread out the challenge for Romney tonight:

CONAN: And, Paul Glastris, I heard something else in Panzo’s comment, and that is a sense of empathy. I understand what you’re going through.

GLASTRIS: Well, Mitt Romney definitely has this problem. I mean, this is, you know, Mr. Car Elevator. My wife has several Cadillacs, and this his problem. This is what you saw last night, with Ann Romney trying, I thought, fairly successfully, to change that narrative and make their marriage and Mitt Romney’s life seem more relatable, like we were just poor kids who – whose dining table was an ironing board, and we succeeded. And now, we have, you know, funds with which we can do good things. And so he – that’s a big struggle.

But I do want to say – what Peter said about policy being revealing character, I could not agree more. When a politician is asking to be put in charge of the country, it is a mark of his character or her character to be able to explain what they’re going to do with that power.

via Speechwriters Offer Advice To Romney For Thursday : NPR.

And my favorite data-driven pollster/analyst Nate Silver explains Mitt’s speech this way:

Instead, Mr. Romney’s strategy was pretty clear. He was seeking to fulfill the role of the generic Republican — a safe and unobjectionable alternative with a nice family and a nice career – and whose main credential is that he is not Mr. Obama, the Democratic president with tepid approval ratings and middling economic numbers.

It may be a smart approach. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings remain only break-even. A clear majority of voters still think the country is on the wrong track. Somewhat contrary to the conventional wisdom, the economy does not necessarily point to a defeat for Mr. Obama based on the models that political scientists and economists use to describe it — but it is not making Mr. Obama’s re-election effort easy.

via In Prudent Speech, Romney Seeks Role as Generic Republican – NYTimes.com.

What was missing?  How about some substance like more historical arguments–explain the American experience after the Great Depression.  More depth?  A more compelling vision?  I still think it was a solid “A” if you are grading him against himself and in the GOP class.  The real question is how will it stand up in the broader context of the national race–and graded up against President Obama’s team next week.

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