Why Clinton’s speech was so good

As mentioned, I just got sucked into Bill Clinton’s speech last night.  This morning driving into work, I was thinking about why, exactly, I liked it so much.  I realized, it was because he actually treated the audience of the speech as if they were intelligent and could handle a meaningful discussion of policy instead of the empty platitudes that so commonly characterize political speech.  So, now that I see James Fallows has written a great explanation of this, it just furthers my apreciation for Fallows as among the smartest political observers out there.  Anyway, here’s Fallows:

Why Bill Clinton’s Speeches Succeed

Because he treats listeners as if they are smart.

That is the significance of “They want us to think” and “The strongest argument is” and “The arithmetic says one of three things must happen” and even “Now listen to me here, this is important.” He is showing that he understands the many layers of logic and evidence and positioning and emotion that go into political discussion — and, more important, he takes for granted that listeners can too.

The main other place you hear discussion based on the same assumption that people of any background, education level, or funny-sounding accent can understand sophisticated back-and-forth of argument and counter-claim is sports-talk radio. (“I understand the concern about Strasburg’s arm. But … “) You hear insults and disagreements and put-downs on sports-talk discussions. You rarely hear the kind of deliberate condescension, the unconcealable effort as if talking to slow learners, of many political “authorities” addressing the unwashed.

It’s the difference between clarifying, and over-simplifying. Clarification, with the confidence that people can understand the back and forth, lies behind passages like this, which characterized most of the speech. Emphasis on the parts that show his approach being applied:

We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

Different people have different natural modes for their speech, and not many people can pull it off just the way Clinton does. But Clinton reminds us of the value (and rarity) of this tone in politics — and the next time you listen to a sports-talk channel, think how much better our political discussion would be if participants assumed as much sophistication about argument as ESPN and radio-talk hosts do.

I don’t listen to a lot of sports-talk radio, but definitely enough to appreciate the comparison.  They operate on a basic assumption that if you are listening that you can handle a reasonably sophisticated discussion about the sport in question.  Rarely do we actually get that with politics.

Fallows also links to a Molly Ball piece that has a similar take on Clinton’s effectiveness:

 It may have been the most effective speech of either political convention.

The reason wasn’t Clinton’s oft-hyped “charisma,” some kind of intangible political magnetism. Sure, Clinton has that — a remarkable looseness and intimacy that draws listeners powerfully into his aura. But the strength of his speech came in its efforts to persuade.

Clinton made arguments. He talked through his reasoning. He went point by point through the case he wanted to make. He kept telling the audience he was talking to them and he wanted them to listen. In an age when so many political speeches are pure acts of rhetoric, full of stirring sentiments but utterly devoid of informational value — when trying to win people over to your point of view is cynically assumed to be futile, so you settle for riling them up instead — Clinton’s felt like a whole different thing. In an era of detergent commercials, he delivered a real political speech.

Will be really interesting to see how Obama’s speech compares more.  I suspect more of the lovely rhetoric that doesn’t actually do a lot for me.  Anyway, loved seeing Bill Clinton make the case against the Republicans so damn effectively.  I suspect that Obama’s team will wisely run on many of these themes Clinton was pushing.

Photo of the day

From the N&O day’s best gallery:

GLENDORA, CA – SEPTEMBER 4: Embers on a burned hillside glow under a starry sky at the Williams fire in the Angeles National Forest on September 4, 2012 north of Glendora, California. The fire began late September 2, putting an early end to Labor Day weekend camping and hiking for vacationers, who were evacuated from the area as it spread to more than 4,000 acres in size. Officials project that it will take at least another week to establish a containment line around the fire which is burning in rugged and difficult to reach backcountry. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Not going to Charlotte

You may have heard that Obama’s speech tonight has been moved indoors instead of the planned stadium event.  Because I can be really lame, I never invested the time in making sure I got a ticket to the big event, which I surely could have given various people I know.  I knew I would regret it. But now I don’t have to.  It would have always been hard to get a ticket to the indoor Time-Warner arena speech.

It is admittedly curious to cancel a speech for a 20% chance of thunderstorms, which has led to a lot of speculation.  Nate Cohn has an interesting summary:

But if your event is so important that even a low chance of storms will cause you to cancel, you don’t plan an outdoor event during the summer in the American south. Throughout the southeast, late day thunderstorms routinely pop up in the hot, humid, air of August and early September, and if the Obama campaign weren’t willing to deal with a 20 percent chance of precipitation, why would they have entertained an outdoor speech in Charlotte in late summer?

Instead, some say the event was canceled because Obama couldn’t fill the stadium. And if they couldn’t, it’s not hard to see why. No matter how you look at it, getting 75,000 people to attend an event in a modest city like Charlotte is really quite difficult…

But according to the Obama campaign, 65,000 seats were already filled…

Either way, the Obama campaign lost an opportunity. By all accounts, Obama’s speech in Denver endowed Obama with an army of new volunteers and text messages to their friends and relatives. With Obama down slightly in most polls in the Tar Heel state, a big speech to rejuvenate the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of North Carolina volunteers could have been extremely useful. Perhaps more than any other state, North Carolina is all about turnout. If switching venues cost the Obama campaign a fantastic organizing opportunity, the optics or weather risks must have been serious, at least in the Obama campaign’s judgment.

It’s a shame.  But at least I won’t be kicking myself for missing it.

Will Ryan = Al Gore?

First Drum on another recent Ryan lie:

It turns out this isn’t true. In 1980 there were 43,000 business bankruptcies. Last year there were 47,000.

But here’s what’s weird: Ryan’s numbers are right if you include both personal and business bankruptcies. So why not just say that? Why not just say “individuals and businesses” in the sentences above. It would still have the same impact. There’s really no reason to mislead his audience this way.

It’s sort of like his marathon whopper. Why claim he ran a sub-three-hour marathon? To convince people that he’s in really good shape? Well, he is in really good shape. He doesn’t need to bother inventing weird stuff like this to make that point. And no one’s going to change their vote because of his marathon prowess anyway.

I dunno. Maybe Ryan doesn’t have the steel trap mind everyone thinks he does. Maybe he forgets a lot of stuff. Maybe he likes his applause lines a little too much. Or maybe he’s just really sloppy. It’s a little hard to figure out.

And Elliot Spitzer:

Ryan’s problem is that he is about to become as phony as the proverbial $3 bill—or 3-hour marathon time. His dissembling about the marathon fits the same pattern as his claims about deficits, taxes, his role in Bowles-Simpson, and the alleged Obama Medicare cut.  He bends numbers and facts when he wants to, merely to confirm his theological views. Facts are malleable: They can be molded and spun, with the assistance of a media willing to repeat them loudly enough that the objective truth simply gets drowned out. And let’s not forget that Ryan is the purported “wonk” of the Republican Party, the truth-teller, the numbers guy. Really?

And Jon Chait goes for the full bore deconstruction that I wish I had written myself:

A week ago, Paul Ryan’s political assets included — alongside his chiseled torso, plainspoken Midwestern demeanor, and the unshakable loyalty of the entire Republican Party — a firm reputation for honesty among the mainstream media. That reputation has suffered a massive, swift erosion. News stories about his speech at the Republican National Convention focused on its many rhetorical sleights of hand. Over the weekend, the revelation that he dramatically misstated a marathon time added a crucial, accessible piece of evidence to the indictment. Now liberals are calling him “Lyin’ Ryan” — a nickname that, a few weeks ago, would have seemed silly, like “Wimpy Palin.” ..

What happened?

Here’s what has not happened: Paul Ryan did not begin telling an unprecedented series of lies that suddenly exposed a predilection for shading the truth…

And Ryan’s Tampa speech, while pretty dishonest, was not especially so by Ryan’s standards. Here you can see why Ryan must view the sudden attack of the truth squad so bewilderingly. Ryan has been saying things like this, and worse, all along…

Ryan seems to have fallen victim to circumstances he didn’t quite foresee. The Romney campaign has spent the last several weeks practically daring the national press corps to call out its lies. Well beyond the usual exaggerations of a national campaign, Romney has built its entire message around two accusations — “you didn’t build that” and “just send them a check” — that are obviously false…

The thing about Ryan is that he has always resided in a counter-factual universe. He is a product of the hermetically sealed right-wing subculture. Many of the facts taken for granted by mainstream economists have never penetrated his brain…

During the last couple of years, Ryan took his act to the big city, expanding beyond his Washington conservative movement base and pitching himself to a broader audience as a straight-talking avatar of fiscal responsibility. That he managed to pull off the feat was completely incredible.

Read the whole Chait post.  But, short version: the mainstream media has finally caught onto what people like Chait, Drum, and yours truly have known all along.  Ryan is basically a fabulist.  The problem is that so many journalists are so averse to policy and numbers that the very fact that Ryan seemed to know what he was talking about and used lots of numbers convinved many pundits that he was a serious, wonky, truth-teller, when that honestly couldn’t be further from the truth.

The problem for Ryan is that in amazingly short period of time, he’s become the new Al Gore– a politician who simply cannot be trusted to tell the truth (of course, Al Gore, unlike Ryan, was never actually any worse than your typical politician).  This media “conventional wisdom” was surely a major factor in Gore “losing” a razor-thin election.  Ryan is not the top of the ticket, so the impact won’t be near the same.  But I think (hope) that Ryan’s political brand has been ruined for good.  And since that brand was a house of cards, that’s a very, very good thing.

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