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Campaign Rhetoric and Political Reality, Part 1

- February 29, 2008

We hereby initiate a new feature, in which some of the inhabitants of The Monkey Cage — in this case, Lee Sigelman and John Sides — exchange ideas (sometimes agreeing, sometimes not) on an issue we think can profit from extended consideration from more than a single viewpoint. There’ll be two rounds of chatter per discussant. Reader comments are strongly encouraged. Lee begins the discussion below. John’s comments are in the next post. Parts 3 and 4 will follow tomorrow.

We’re hearing a lot of criticism of Barack Obama these days for being “vague on the issues.” Is he really? And even if he is, so what?

Obama’s rhetorical style differs markedly from that of other leading presidential aspirants of recent years, except, I think, for the odd pairing of Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Both Jackson and Reagan, in their public addresses, concentrated on “the vision thing” rather than on laying out a litany of proposals for dealing with a wide array of problems, a la Bill Clinton.

Does that mean that Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan didn’t have any positions on pressing political issues, or that Obama doesn’t? I don’t think so. I’m betting that the Obama campaign’s issues briefing book and position white papers are about as thick as Hillary Clinton’s or John McCain’s. But detailed discussion of these issues doesn’t fit his rhetorical style, which focuses on trying to get people politically (re-)engaged rather than on reciting a platform.

What I think we’re really seeing here is a different style of leadership, and one that seems to be fitting quite comfortably into the changing context of American politics. More and more, the presidency seems to be seen as and to be evolving into a position for a role model people can admire, an articulate (or sometimes not!) spokesperson for the nation, and a general political direction-setter. Obama’s rhetorical strategy plays directly into that leadership style.

Every rhetorical style has both up sides and down sides. Let’s start with what I’ll call the “traditional” style of recent decades, personified in this discussion by Hillary Clinton. Its obvious up side is that the candidate gets to parade his or her specific expertise and experience for all to see, thereby projecting competence by demonstrating command of an A-Z list of policy issues.

That’s fine, but if you focus your campaign on presenting detailed policy briefs, you’re courting various types of trouble. First, you’re tying ourself down to positions that may trigger criticism and put you on the defensive; hence the virtues of a strategy of deliberate ambiguity, as discussed by, e.g., Ken Shepsle in “The Strategy of Ambiguity” and by Ben Page in Choices and Echoes. Second, by staking out a position this year, you subject yourself to attacks that you have “waffled” from a position you expressed earlier, under different conditions. Third, if you try to spread your electoral appeal by reaching for support on a wide array of issues, you leave yourself open to the charge that you lack an overarching vision — that you’re a Jimmy Carter-type details guy or a traditional Democrat who’s pandering to the wishes of every Democrat-leaning interest group under the sun.. And fourth and perhaps most importantly, you’re very quickly going to bore your audience, which invariably says it wants the campaign to focus on “the issues” but quickly loses interest when the issues discussion lasts longer than a six-second sound-bite. On this fourth point, go back and read Dana Milbank’s Washington Post piece from a couple of months ago, which I referenced in “The Monkey Cage,” here, about the audience response to Hillary Clinton’s policy-wonkish speeches. Or look at Tuesday’s “Doonesbury” cartoon:


On the other hand, the up side of the Jackson/Reagan/Obama rhetorical approach is that, if it’s well done, it can energize and expand one’s support coalition. The corresponding down side is that it invites suspicion that the candidate is an empty vessel, long on words and short on substance. This, of course, has been Hillary Cllinton’s implicit criticism of Obama all along, and in recent days it’s turned from implicit to explicit.

(For whatever it’s worth, my own sense is that Reagan and Jackson were both very long on substance, but they were “hedgehogs,” with just a few big ideas, rather than “foxes,” with a wide array of often-disconnected ones.)

So is Obama vague on issues? Yes, in his speeches, but that might simply reflect his preferred rhetorical strategy — one that seems to work very well for him. Giving speeches that are longer on platitudes than on specifics doesn’t necessarily mean that he and his advisers have no specific ideas. It could just mean that they’re courting public support via a different rhetorical strategy than most other recent presidential candidates have tried. It’s certainly a strategy that has served Obama well to this point.