Presidential Speechwriters call for more discipline by candidates

The first day of the 2012 Ragan Speechwriters Conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC concluded with a blue-ribbon panel of former Presidential speechwriters (from both parties) calling for more discipline on the part of contenders for the USA’s highest office.

George H.W. Bush speechwriter Chriss Winston said Republican candidates are focused too much on process and the negative campaigns of their opponents instead of their vision of how to turn the country around. They need to discipline to focus their message. Reagan-era speechwriter Clark Judge agreed that the 24-hour media coverage will unseat those who practice politics as usual:

“Presidential communications begins with the discipline of thinking through what you’re saying, who you’re saying it to, how you’re saying it and whether you’re going directly through cable to the country or if you’ll be mediated by reporters picking out sound bites.”

The partisan speechwriters naturally talked up their own champions strengths and highlighted the weaknesses of the opposing party. However, moderator Lenny Steinhorn, in a clever twist, asked them to state what they’d advise if they were writing for the other side.

Here’s some of the comments that struck me.

President Obama’s strengths and weaknesses

  • Gets a lot of flack for using a TelePrompter, but at least this shows he has planned his remarks and does not go off message or ramble. Some attributed this to his relatively short tenure as a senator, and those who have long senate records tend not to succeed as candidates (Kerry, Dole, McCain) who have the muscle memory of years of long-winded Senate speeches to overcome.
  • There’s a danger in his expertise with rhetoric and he needs to back up his speeches with actions. Style alone, where he’s the clear leader, won’t win alone. Content matters. Tie deeply held values to policy specifics.
  • His approval ratings have a “trading range” of 40-50% – if he’s at the top of that range in November he’ll probably win, if at the bottom, probably lose.
  • Obama was elected because his bio and the vision he had for America came together in a compelling manner. However, his speeches while in office have often lacked this. His core message since in office has shifted from Hope/Change to the Problem I Inherited to the Car in the Ditch to Millionaires and Billionaires to Fair Play by the Rules to the War on Women.
  • He’s weakest in terms of gas prices and the economy and the eventual Republican opponent needs to focus on this.
  • There’s a danger that the more he speaks on the economy the lower his ratings will go. It reminds people of the things they don’t like about him. Addressing contraception was a good move.
  • One suggestion from George W. Bush speechwriter Jonathan Horn is that Obama seize on the 1862 Preliminary Declaration on Emancipation as something all Americans can take pride in and refer to it in his September 2012 Convention speech.

Mitt Romney’s strengths and weaknesses

  • There was general agreement that Romney was the most likely Republican candidate. Minimal mention was made of Santorum or Gingrich.
  • The most frequent demand was that Romney tell his story to the American people. Bush in 1988 is seen as a role model for Romney: a decent guy who can present an alternate view of government. Yet no-one knows his story. Romney needs to tell the story of his family, going back to his Dad who was an incredible speaker, but by no means an immigrant from Mexico! Romney needs to let people know what his core values are. The Convention speech is the ideal time to reframe his story and share what he believes. (I was fascinated not one panelist mentioned that were he to tell his whole story it would have to include what took his ancestors to Mexico in the first place, and the central role the Church of Latter Day Saints plays in his life and how he must have more than a passing fluency in the French language. But, to my knowledge, neither a word of French nor mention of the Angel Moroni has ever passed his lips on the campaign trail.)
  • He’s far more than the “successful businessman”. This is too clinical. There are awkward aspects to his wealth for some, but none that Bush did not face in ’88, and overcome with the “jiu-jitsu” comments about living in an ordinary home in Texas, sweeping Andover and Yale under the rug.
  • Romney needs to define himself as the man of the moment.
  • He must offer a clear, concise vision of where the country should go and focus on the economy to beat Obama.

In Conclusion

Overall, this was an enlivening panel discussion where current political differences in the USA were debated in a civilized manner. However, it might be a measure of how far down the divisive path America has come that some of the European attendees at the Ragan Conference were aghast at the level of partisanship. I guess they need to watch a few CNBC and Fox News shows, followed by a drive-time commute with Talk Radio, to realize how constructive the panel discussion actually was.

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Former Carter speechwriter Henrik Hertzberg claims “Good Presidential speeches don’t get results” in The New Yorker.

Panel member Clark Judge interviewed in March 2010 on Norwegian TV. Says he was “tremendously impressed” by Obama’s speeches in 2008 primaries, in contrast to Hillary. Same point he made at the 2012 Ragan Conference.

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