For politicians, talking policy works

September 6, 2012

I'm going to depart from the conventional wisdom a bit. I don't think former president Bill Clinton's speech last night was so good. I think the vast majority of political rhetoric is just missing what made it work.


Carolyn Kaster/AP

Go read the transcript of Clinton's remarks. The rhetoric is unremarkable, both as prepared and as delivered. There are a couple of great lines, but not that many. The speech has a laundry-list like quality, and few overarching themes. The arguments weren't particularly new nor particularly brilliant. If you open a book of "great speeches of the 20th century" or the like, this is not the kind of speech you'll find in there.

But here's what it did have: Policy. Lots of it. What was different about Clinton's speech — what's always been different about his speeches — is that Clinton trusts the American people to care about the issues enough to sit and listen to a real, detailed explanation of them. And the American people, in return, trust Clinton to explain those issues to them.

I don't want to take anything away from Clinton's delivery here. He's a great speaker, easy and warm and open. He also uses a trick that I'm particularly fond of, repeatedly peppering his remarks with "this is important," and "I want you to listen." He makes people feel like they're learning something that matters. People like that feeling. If they're going to sit down on a Wednesday night to spend an hour being a good citizen, they may as well learn something useful. Politicians don't think often enough about the sense of betrayal that comes when they ask Americans to give up their hard-earned time and, in return, deliver a string of talking points, personal boasts and clearly misleading attack lines.

I should admit something: It's a fundamental principle of Wonkblog that policy information is undervalued, so I'm talking my book here. But the rapturous reaction to Clinton's address is evidence, I think, that it's undervalued by politicians. Everyone is so certain that the audience doesn't want to hear about budget numbers and health-care details that they way underprovide that kind of information, and that makes the few politicians who do talk earnestly and clearly about those issues look much better than their peers because it makes them sound different. And sounding different is the first step toward rising in politics.

One of the prime beneficiaries of this dynamic in recent years is Rep. Paul Ryan, who rode the reaction to his fluency in budget arcana all the way to a vice presidential nomination. But once he was named to the Republican ticket, the Romney campaign told him to tone it down. Ryan's convention speech was notably light on policy specifics. My hunch is that's a mistake. Ryan's rise has been based on the premise that he's the rare politician who can do something like what Clinton did last night, but the Romney campaign hasn't even wanted him to try. That's left him sounding like just another politician.

If I were an ambitious young politician, I'd be looking at guys like Clinton and Ryan and Obama and Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser degree, Ron Wyden and Bobby Jindal and Rob Portman, as evidence that there are real gains to be made by getting good at talking policy. It's a much less crowded and more rewarding path to prominence than getting good at saying outlandish things, or getting good at fundraising.

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