The first day of the 2012 Ragan Speechwriters Conference last week concluded with a blue-ribbon panel of former presidential speechwriters from both parties calling for more discipline on the part of contenders for our country’s highest office.
George H.W. Bush speechwriter Chriss Winston said Republican candidates focus too much on process and the negative campaigns of their opponents instead of how to turn the country around. They need to focus their message.
Reagan-era speechwriter Clark Judge said 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 are some of the comments that struck me.
President Obama’s strengths and weaknesses
• Using a teleprompter. Although he gets a lot of flak for using it, this shows he plans his remarks and does not go off message or ramble. Some attributed this to his relatively short tenure as a senator. Those who have short senate records tend not to be as successful as candidates who have the muscle memory of years of long-winded Senate speeches (John Kerry, Bob Dole, John McCain).
• Back up the rhetoric. There’s a danger in his expertise with rhetoric; 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.
• Bring back the vision. His approval ratings have a “trading range” of 40-50 percent. 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. His speeches while in office have often lacked this. His core message as president has shifted from hope/change to the “Problem I Inherited,” ”Car in the Ditch,” “Millionaires and Billionaires,” “Fair Play” “By the Rules,” and the “War on Women.”
• Don’t talk economy. 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 about 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.
• A unifying message. 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 Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.
• Tell his story. The most frequent demand was for Romney to 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 Romney’s story. He needs to tell the story of his family and 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, the central role the Church of Latter Day Saints plays in his life, and how he must have more than a passing fluency in French. But, to my knowledge, neither a word of French nor mention of the Angel Moroni has ever passed his lips on the campaign trail.)
• More than just a “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.
• Focus on the economy. He must offer a clear, concise vision of where the country should go and focus on the economy to beat Obama. He needs to define himself as the man of the moment.
Ian Griffin is a freelance speechwriter. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Professionally Speaking.