Man Without Qualities

Friday, July 30, 2004

The Convention Addresses III: The Great Kerry

John Kerry

In my opinion John Kerry's acceptance speech was not effective in the sense Bill Clinton might respect that term: it was not particularly honed to include what was needed to get John Kerry elected. I don't intend to survey his address in detail (See Jay Caruso's take, which includes a nice dismemberment of the corresponding New York Times cheerleading editorial, and Taranto does an excellent job and so does Tom Maguire, and Kerryhaters has a terrific round-up of reactions.) but I would like to discuss its structure and approach a bit.

It wasn't technically a bad speech and the delivery wasn't seriously deficient. What it lacked was Mr. Clinton's ability to convince or suggest on one individual issue after another that this man, this speaker, has a new insight that might allow  him to make some actual progress on this issue - exactly because this man rejects the standard formulas. Mr. Clinton's most notable promise - to end welfare as we know it - was a paradigm for the effectiveness of his speeches. He promised to "end" welfare - strikingly a formula for some of the right. But then comes the kicker, the Clintonian flourish that suggests that he will salvage whatever is good and necessary about welfare. (Of course, when he gave this address Mr. Clinton had no intention of doing any such thing - as the welfare reforms bills he actually presented to the Congress demonstrate. But when Congress came up with its own bill that pretty well accomplished what Mr. Clinton had articulated with his famous slogan Mr. Clinton was told by his then-arch-consultant Dick Morris that he must sign or lose in 1996 - and Mr. Clinton thereupon made the Congressional bill his own.) Mr. Clinton's most effective speeches were generally long assemblies of such local persuasions.  That speech structure had two big advantages: (1) he avoided articulating a general approach to or theory of governance or his office, which allowed him more easily to manage inconsistent interest groups ("ideology") and (2) it persuaded the listener only as to Bill Clinton personally, which consolidated power in his hands and allowed him to avoid a lot of the baggage of Congressional Democrats and Democratic Party ideology while basking in Democratic Party history. It is no surprise that the effects of his Presidency on the Democratic Party - especially its Congressional wing - were disastrous. But it is surprising that some Democrats are muttering that they admire Mr. Clinton because he "taught the Democrats how to win again." That's risible coming from a Party whose historical till of legitimacy and long-standing Congressional dominance Mr. Clinton dissipated to get and keep himself in office. The structure of his speeches also largely explains why they were generally so long and generally had to be very long.

But John Kerry's speech relied on exactly the arching rhetoric and cleverness that Bill Clinton so assiduously avoided, often descending to mere verbal cleverness of the type Mr. Clinton finds radioactive. Just by way of example: And it's time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families. He didn't provide context for this slogan at all, and certainly no suggestion that he has an insight that might avoid the ideological dead ends. Worse, for swing voters outside that Boston hall, this slogan perilously risks raising the gay-marriage issue that Mr. Kerry is struggling to finesse - and Bill Clinton has publicly told him he must finesse. So does "clever" erode "effective." One could go through the whole speech in this way - it's full of these clunkers - but, as I said, I'm not up for such a survey.

It's not surprising that the Kerry speech was full of hi-sounding slogans and without the Clintonian suggestions of local solutions, since Senator Kerry is reported to have resorted to some of John Kennedy's old speechwriters. (Contrary to the kausfiles take, the speech at it core was an effort at a John Kennedy impersonation - albeit with a stand-up delivery act so bad as to be almost unrecognizable. But then Mickey has been perhaps stripping a few gears since making his way-premature and ill considered decision to vote for Senator Kerry in November.)

The most striking aspect of the address also appears correlated to its old-school approach: absurd, broad, expensive promises. Perhaps most strikingly, the Senator "promises" that health care equal to what the "wealthy" now have will become a "right?" This is ridiculous. What happens when a price tag is placed on that promise and the consequences of such an effort to existing health care programs is described? The Senator also says he will end American "dependence" on foreign energy but tighten protection of the environment. This promise is also absurd - and its absurdity can be pointed out in the most uncomfortable fashion by simply noting that no actual method of accomplishing  it has been presented. He even uses a variation on the old pseudo-argument that a "nation that has put a man on the moon should be able to ..." (another Kennedy allusion?) And what is one to make of the Senator's final images:

I learned a lot about these values on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta with Americans... We were literally all in the same boat. We looked out, one for the other. And we still do. That is the kind of America that I will lead as president, an America where we are all in the same boat. Never has there been a moment more urgent for Americans to step up and define ourselves. I will work my heart out. But my fellow citizens, the outcome is in your hands more than mine. It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there, the sun is rising. Our best days are still to come.

These images seem to have no content whatsoever, they don't even connect to each other. But they do bear a similarity to the last passage of The Great Gatsby:

“[H]is dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” And of Gatsby and of all of us he predicts: “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out father… so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

America as Jay Gatsby? Considering who Jay Gatsby was and what became of him, what is one to make of a candidate so stuck in his college-English class and brief military past that he contines to be mesmerized by an image of his own swift boat beating against that current? [UPDATE: Apparently, Maureen Dowd thinks Gilligan's Island is a better fit than Gatsby.]

I again agree with Steve Antler: last night, the canary died. With it's airy rhetoric and repeated confirmation of liberal formulas and namecalling, and its complete absence of suggested new solutions, the speech lacked any of the "comfort and closure" which a typical Bill Clinton speech dribbles into one's ears in insubstantial, cumulative and ultimately highly effective drops - a little like water torture in certain respects.

There is one possibility that may vindicate Senator Kerry's approach: If this election is totally about the incumbent to an extent even surpassing that of the 1992 election, and the electorate is fed up with that incumbent even more thanit was fed up with his father, then it might make sense for Senator Kerry to have delivered a speech that will essentially leave no trace. Last night's non-speech might be "effective" in its own, weird way.

I'm going to stop there. I do not think Senator Kerry's speech was effective, but I am not the target audience for Senator Kerry's speech. The proof of its effectiveness will be in the tracking polls. Today's Rasmussen Tracking Poll shows Senator Kerry with a tiny "lead" over Mr. Bush of 48-45%, exactly the same as yesterday. Is this "bounce?" - or "momentum?"

That Poll is not my favorite, but it is available. Today's Poll reflects interviews conducted Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. So today's poll numbers do not reflect Senator Kerry's actual delivery of his speech, which some people consider to be overwhelming more important than its content. I do not agree - although delivery counts, too. In any event, the general content of the speech was Democratic and Kerry-Edwards boilerplate and included nothing new (again, contrary to the Clinton approach) and much of the specific content of that speech has been circulating in the media for some of the period covered by the Poll. So the Poll does reflect a good deal of the speech's content and the first three days of the Boston Convention. The next few days will tell more.

Mr. Clinton received more than 15% of "bounce" from his convention. It will take a lot of "50-50-polarized-nation" fancy dancing to explain away a "bounce" of, say, 4 - 5% for Kerry-Edwards.

UPDATE: Today's Zogby Poll says it incorporates samples taken through Thursday - but willfully omits any indication of whether the Thursday sample was taken after Senator Kerry spoke. It has been increasingly apparent that the Zogby Poll is manipulated for effect - at points during the Democratic primaries the results were simply embarrassing. That pattern continues, with today's Zogby results showing a nearly-insignificant Kerry-Edwards "bounce" to a 5% lead from a previous 2% lead in the Zogby Poll of early July - for a grand total "bounce" effect of 3% so far, well within the polls stated margin of error. In other words, Zogby is showing no bounce as of today - although we don't know how early in the day Thursday's sample was taken, so that could rise by tomorrow. Nevertheless, the Zogby analysis of its own "post-convention poll" is all doomy gloomy for Bush:

The most recent Zogby poll shows deeper trouble for President George W. Bush beyond just the horserace. Mr. Bush has fallen in key areas while Senator John Kerry has shored up numerous constituencies in his base. The Bush team’s attempted outreach to base Democratic and swing constituency has shown to be a failure thus far, limiting his potential growth in the electorate.

Not only is this analysis completely at odds with the trends detected in the recent ABC/Washington Post Poll, but at times the degree to which Mr. Zogby must be tortuting his sample borders on the halucinatory, as with this dreamer:

Not only has Kerry now come to a tie with Bush in favorability in the South (55% for both), the Kerry-Edwards ticket has pulled ahead, 48% to 46% in the South.

How could any sensible person think that the Kerry-Edwards ticket has pulled ahead in the South? A new Election Research poll released last night shows Mr. Bush tracking higher in 14 of 18 states while Mr. Kerry had an improved position in only four states (Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon) - all of them way outside the South.

In any event, the most significant aspect of the Zogby Poll is its showing (as of today) a 3% "bounce" despite the evident sample-torturing. As the old saying goes: Drop even a dead cat from high enough up and it will bounce a bit.

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