At FiveThirtyEight — you know, the site that does opinion poll analysis and aggregation based on baseball sabermetrics and has pretty much been treated as a Delphic oracle ever since Nate Silver called the 2012 election? — they’re running a pukemaking pair of columns called The Perfect Democratic Stump Speech and The Perfect Republican Stump Speech.
They asked two well-known political speechwriters, Jeff Nussmann for the Democrats and Barton Swaim for the Republicans, to write the ideal, focus-group-tested, entirely-pandering stump speech for a generic Democratic or generic Republican presidential candidate. The speeches they wrote are based on the positions and phrases, according to polls and their experience, that most appeal to the target audience. Both include margin notes explaining why they chose those words and phrases, tips on how to deliver the lines, and the data they used to decide which positions the candidate should take.
“Here,” writes Nussbaum in the margin, “I’d advise a speaker to slow down and enunciate each syllable, matched with a forceful chopping gesture.” What’s the carefully-crafted line that requires this? Might it be something like, I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! or perhaps, You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold? Afraid not. The line is, “We’re going to get to work.” (Chop. Chop. Chop.)
Neither speechwriter reveals so much as a hint of shame about how deliberate they are in making sure they never commit the candidates to doing what the speech insinuates they’ll do. Swaim, for example, puts this line in the Republican speech: “We don’t need to take America back to some Cold War mentality, but we do need to speak and act with moral clarity about the naked aggression of Russia.” In the margins, he notes proudly that this is really good because,
Declaring an intention to speak and act with clarity or resoluteness is a nice way to criticize the present occupier of the office (in this case President Obama) — thus capitalizing on people’s suspicions that he isn’t decisive or doesn’t take principled stands — without obligating yourself to pursue specific policies once in office.
He published that comment. Proud of it, I’d guess. Just the way it is, right?
So I get it, now. You all know how baffled I’ve been by the insistence among all the Republican candidates that we don’t need to have a Syria policy, we just need a president who’s willing to say, “radical Islamic terrorism.” (Chop. Chop. Chop.) I truly didn’t get why saying that was supposed to help, but now I do. Their internal pollsters have figured out that those are winning words that make them sound principled and decisive. But heaven forfend the candidates feel obligated to pursue a specific policy once in office, particularly if they’ve been elected with a mandate to carry it out. Therefore that’s all the speechwriters let them say. So I’m guessing we should look forward to exactly the same policies, only this time, the president will say “radical Islamic terrorism” three times quickly every morning while turning seven times in a clockwise circle and wearing the pair of lucky socks he hasn’t washed since the Cowboys won the Superbowl. Or something.
I know. No one promised me democracy was a rose garden, only that it was better than any other system anyone’s ever tried. I’m not a child, I get it; all the stirring speeches in the world mean nothing if the candidate can’t get himself elected.
But here’s my question. Why does this sort of thing get a candidate elected? Why do people like it? Read both the perfectly-pandering Democrat stump speech and the perfectly-pandering Republican one. Look at the notes. Try to pretend you haven’t read the notes and don’t know, for a fact, just how much contempt these speechwriters and by implication the candidates who hire them feel for you. Imagine listening to the speech. Would you be anything but annoyed? Does it not sound to you like exactly what it is — a series of overused and vacant clichés? Can you imagine being moved, despite yourself? Do you not feel that both speeches sound like every speech Obama has given in the past eight years? Would you not sense, immediately, that the candidate believes you, the listener, to be really very, very stupid and easily manipulated?
If you would, does this not suggest that Ricochet is very different from the rest of the electorate? If we are, why? But most important, why does the rest of the electorate now prefer this sort of blathering, patronizing speech, when really, within living memory, it fully expected — and demanded — presidential candidates who would if necessary be able to make this sort of speech?
I’m baffled, honestly. What changed and when? Peter, you’d have the best insight of any of us — what’s happened to speechwriting culture?