Thursday, January 14, 2016

Two Speeches

Unlike most people, I very much enjoy public speaking. I enjoy the challenge of crafting a good speech that will convey ideas and, perhaps, sway opinions. I enjoy the rush of standing up in front of a group, no matter how large, delivering the words I’ve written, and judging by the audience’s response whether or not I achieved my purpose. Yes, I get a certain amount of “stage fright,” but it’s minimized by the knowledge that I’ve prepared well and am doing something not very many people would be comfortable doing, or could do as well*. I also enjoy listening to a good speech, because I can appreciate both the hard work that went into crafting it and the feelings of the speaker as he or she delivers it.

I’d like to talk about two speeches: President Obama’s final State of the Union address (or “SOTU,” to use the somewhat vulgar abbreviation), and the Republican response delivered by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. You can read the transcript of the President’s address here and the transcript of Governor Haley’s response here. If you didn’t watch the two speeches live, go ahead and read the transcripts before you go on with this post. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, let's go on.

First, let me talk about the President’s speech. As a public speaker of some experience, I think it was an excellent address and seemed to accomplish what Mr Obama intended: to rise above the rancor and ill will of the last few years, make his claims about what he saw as the successes of his tenure in office, and express his fundamental optimism about the future. Although I know that he did not write the speech himself (I know from personal experience that it was drafted by a committee and vetted by a small army of experts from every department of the government**), I thought it was a good look into his mind as he looks back on the last seven years of his administration and ahead to the final one. He made a number of claims (which were immediately fact-checked by numerous organizations, both independent and partisan), all of which used the usual amount of positive spin, and none of which were outright lies. He took credit for what he viewed as his successes and acknowledged where he had fallen short. In short, he tried to appeal to the better angels of our nature***.

Mr Obama’s speech was severely criticized by some, as is only to be expected in today’s environment. And to be sure, he did not propose major new programs or say all the things that each particular interest group hoped he would say. But I thought it was a good speech for a difficult time, for presentation to a very difficult audience.

Now let’s turn to Governor Haley’s rejoinder. This was also an excellent speech, and in choosing Governor Haley – born to immigrant parents from India – to deliver it, the GOP tried to send a message of inclusiveness that has been missing from most of its public rhetoric and actions. Her speech was a calm and reasoned rejection of most of what the President had to say, as is only to be expected in today’s environment. But the main thing that struck me was that it sounded very much like an audio version of the Republican postmortem study completed after the last election, in which the party attempted to take a clear-eyed view of what went wrong and what it needed to do in order to win future elections – you can read a copy of that study, "The Growth and Opportunity Project," here.

As you may recall, that study made a large number of policy and action recommendations for improving the GOP’s standing with the American public, most of which have been ignored in favor of the passions of the time. Governor Haley presented a list of the things that the GOP would do “if we held the White House,” all of which were espoused in the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” but the list was short on “hows.”+ One in particular caught my attention: “We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.” A party with sound and constructive policy ideas would already have placed such reforms on the table in the form of new legislation, rather than forcing more than 50 separate time-wasting and useless votes on repealing the existing health care law.

Governor Haley’s speech drew a picture of the Republican Party to which I once belonged with pride, but which has since driven me away and sunk into a festering pool of denial, anger, and intolerance. I could rejoin and support the GOP of which Governor Haley spoke, but I don’t think it really exists, and until it does, I’ll be stuck where I’ve been for the last few election cycles – voting for the best bad option.

A good speech makes people think and inspires them to action. Both President Obama and Governor Haley gave very good speeches on Monday night, but they gave them largely to audiences that have already made up their minds. Neither speech is likely to change anyone’s opinion, but they were great theater, and worthy of study by people who love quality oratory ... if not quality ideas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - By the way, Governor Haley's speech is being loudly condemned ... by Republican conservatives. Good luck with the message you were trying to send, Governor.

* Pats self on back.

** Some years ago, I was one of the people in the Pentagon who reviewed an early draft of an SOTU speech for another president. The draft I reviewed didn’t look very much like the speech that was actually delivered.

*** A quote from a Republican president – Abraham Lincoln – in his first inaugural address.

+ In fairness, a short up-yours rejoinder speech is not the place to lay out detailed policy proposals, but those haven't really been laid out anywhere else, either. For an interesting view on the difference between Republicans and Democrats as regards their approach to policy, read this.


John Hill said...

" for the best bad option."
Pretty much true for all of us.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

I'm glad both speeches was calm and not inflammatory.

Atomic Dog said...

They both did a good job. Nikki Haley in 2020?

Mike said...

Haley's teeth gritting presentation was a little too distracting and fake. In these days of 1080i and 4K TV they should have picked a less distracting face. I'm sure if you were talking to her in person you wouldn't see the glare of lights coming off those teeth.