Cathy McMorris Rogers and the SOTU response. Yoda or Jindal?

It’s the most unenviable job in politics: delivering the response to the President’s State of the Union address.

A high-wire act performed over circling sharks, the number one goal is simply to avoid coming out of it as chum. To emerge merely a chump can be considered success.

The problem is that everybody remembers when it all goes wrong, but few remember when it goes OK. Bobby Jindahl’s train-wreck in 2009, and Marco Rubio’s water-bottle moment in 2013 both leap to mind, whereas Mitch Daniels workmanlike performance in 2012 has fallen off the radar.

If delivering the SOTU response is a plum handed to rising stars, then it’s a Hunger Games of a plum. Most of those chosen are going to wind-up pulp.

Delivering a successful refutation is never a job for the angry. An angry, fired-up politician with an axe to grind and a name to make, Bobby Jindal for example, will fall straight into the trap of attempting a sweeping refutation of everything that the President just said. Striding to the microphone, they’ll hurl the metaphorical bowling ball of their indignation down the alley and hope for a strike that sends the President’s pins a’flying.

The problem is though, that until the President actually speaks, nobody knows for certain where those pins are going to be placed, or on which facts they are going to be based. This means that unless the respondent is very, very lucky, they’re going to send that bowling ball straight into the gutter, where it will land with a dull and heavily press-coveraged thud. It’s not quite the sound of tumbleweed, but dreadfully close to it, and precisely what panicked Marco Rubio into groping for that water bottle last year.

So instead of bowling pins, let’s talk sweaters. Woolen ones.

The President’s State of the Union, will be presented as a perfectly stitched garment of arguments that knit together into one broad theme.

A successful SOTU respondent does not need to shred that sweater. They merely need to pick lose a single thread and then tug just enough so that the news networks scent an opportunity and finish the unravelling before the President is even back in the West Wing.

That thread will be found in one of two seams. It might be a dubious fact that can be directly challenged, or it could be in a slightly too sweeping phrase. All the respondent now needs to do is to get a hold of that thread and use a wonderful little toy called The Yoda Argument.

Remember the famous line from Star Wars?

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering, and that way lies the dark side, young Skywalker”

A leads to B. B leads to C. C leads to D.

For a rebuttal, you use the same structure: “If A is wrong, then B is wrong. If B is wrong, then C must be wrong, and if C is wrong, then D is wrong, and that way unravels the sweater, Mr President.”

The respondent does not need to go for a kill stroke, they just need to find that thread.

It’s a big thing to ask though. The respondent needs to resist the all-or-bust temptation of the furnace-blast rebuttal, and that’s why Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers could be such an interesting GOP choice for 2013. Despite being a highly ranked Republican, they don’t let her out to speak a great deal. Her style is generally cool, and tends towards the forensic. For so long as the Tea Party demanded speakers who came with a certain spittle-flecked fundamentalism, her cooler style didn’t always fit. Hence the low profile. Her choice for tomorrow night’s performance could therefore prove to be a smart one.

Will Cathy McMorris Rogers remain forensic enough to start the SOTU unravelling, or will she fall into the trap of ages, and make a complete Jindal of it?

The Third Presidential Debate 2012. Analysis and Commentary. And Who Won?

by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

Up till tonight, it was one round each.

Both candidates had proved themselves. Governor Romney had shown himself an admirable debater when the battleground was formed of facts. He had shown himself credible as the next CEO of United States of America Inc. President Obama meanwhile had delivered the debater who could stir the passions. His greatest challenge had been to overcome his alter-ego as Professor and deliver Presidential. He achieved it.

That’s not to say it’s all been bouquets. There have been brickbats too. We’ve had the snoozefest of President Obama’s comatose comments during the Domestic Affairs Debate, and were then entertained by the binders full of blunders that opened during the Town Hall Meeting.

Tonight was the final round……

So who flourished in Florida?
Did the Sunshine State shimmer on someone’s parade?
Who was….. the strongest debater?

Gavin:
I’ll start by saying this wasn’t a fair fight. There’s a big difference between knowing your subject and learning your subject. I’d imagine that this was the debate Governor Romney looked forward to the least, and President Obama the most. Talking about action and fact is a strong position when things are going well. Obama generally did this. Words like we did and we are, are stronger than we should. The subject of foreign policy is high ground for Obama, and he had it all night.  Romney frequently had to make his positions seem the same, but with woulda-coulda-shoulda differences. To which Obama could frequently respond, with variations like, “I am pleased that you are now endorsing our policy.”

Obama practiced debate ju-jitsu all night — which he did very well. In response to Romney opinion about increasing the size of the Navy, Obama responded with a clever and well positioned rejoinder, “You mentioned the Navy and that we have fewer ships than we had in 1916, well Gov we also have few horses and bayonets.” It was a nice rhetorical comparison that made Romney seem outdated and misinformed.

He did it again when he compared his first foreign trips to Romney’s (which have been documented as gaffe-prone) “I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”

These and other comparisons let Obama credibly claim the central question of the night. “The central question is who is going to be credible to our allies and enemies.” In debating, pitching, selling, if you can define the frame by which the decision will be made, you win.

Peter:
Tonight could have gone either way, and when Governor Romney won the coin toss to go first, a subtle part of the power balance moved into his favor. When the first question turned out to be on Libya, which is currently the weakest topic for the President, the balance moved decisively into his favor. This was a chance to get his opponent on the back foot from the word go.

So what went so very wrong for the Governor?

To understand why Mitt Romney found himself so frequently on the ropes tonight, it’s necessary to look back over the past 12 months. There has indeed been a degree of the etch-a-sketch to many of his pronouncements, which in fairness, has been thrust upon him due to the necessity of initially appealing to one electorate during the GOP primaries, and then having to broaden that appeal to a wider and more disparate national audience. The President seized upon that weakness and ripped it apart live on national television.

The first signs of trouble were concealed in the early Obama sound-bite that America needs “strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership”. This would turn out to be Obama’s key message, returning to it frequently as he laid out examples of Mitt Romney’s changed positions on multiple issues.

Romney’s response was weak, but also underlies his debate strategy. Referring to himself, he stated: “Attacking me is not on the agenda.” It was an attempt to rise above the debate. It was an attempt to strike a tone of consensus. All it achieved was waving a rather large white flag into the face of an already charging bull.

Both candidates frequently pivoted away from the subject of Foreign Affairs and headed back into Domestic Affairs. One such pivot yielded what for me was one of the President’s finest lines: “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” This line also set the President up well for the first of several pivots to the topic of women, a key demographic in the undecided electorate.

In past debates, we’ve noted that Mitt Romney favors four-point lists as a speaking tactic, where the fourth point on the list will normally be his key talking point, and during the first debate, that key talking point was Small Business.

Tonight he returned to that key talking point, but sadly the President’s team had seen it coming and the President was uncannily ready with a list of negatives about Governor Romney’s record on exactly that subject.

This was another strong element working in the President’s favor: Incredible preparation and planning concerning both his own strategy, and his opponent’s.

Governor Romney did attain the occasional moment of glory. In particular, I thought his response “America has not dictated to other nations. America has freed other nations from dictators” was both clever and stylish. Sadly though, it was his only such moment.

It was an Obama victory tonight. And a victory that pointed up the importance of not just passion, but planning and preparation.

 

Santorum out. But can Romney learn to like himself?

by Peter Watts

The personal characteristics that enable others to believe in us the most, are often the ones coached out of us as being most likely to frighten the horses.

The Republican nomination process for the candidate to face President Obama this November, has demonstrated this supremely.

Candidate Rick Santorum spoke from the tightly constructed belief system of a 17th century religious fundamentalist. He knew what he stood for, and had that stand consistent. He knew his social views made him unacceptable, yet he trumpeted them through all pronouncements. The interesting result was that while we might have abhored his policies, we couldn’t help but believe the man. When Santorum spoke, we believed him. When his opponent, Mitt Romney speaks, we don’t.

Romney appears insincere. His character appears disparate and dislocated. We are shown the urban sprawl, while denied even a glimpse of the central city. What is so awful that Mitt Romney hides it from view?

The problem is that Romney has been told his wealth does not play well with the electorate. He’s been told the same thing about his Mormonism. The result is a candidate hobbled by the two defining characteristics that should be surging a Republican candidate to victory; red-blooded business success and missionary-grade religious ardour.

Romney struggles to portray himself as something he’s not, or to put it more precisely, he struggles not to portray himself as what he truly is.

We should have been hearing about Mitt-the-Merciless. Instead we get Mitt the Etch-A-Sketch; one quick shake and the policies dissolve.

While Romney flustered, Santorum flew. Santorum flew despite the fact that he knew he would never become the nominee, but still consistently put his own true self out onto the stage. Result: respect.

Mitt Romney came into the campaign as Republican heir apparent. He came into the campaign as the candidate the White House feared. And yet, while he will indeed leave the campaign as nominee, he will also leave it weakened by evasiveness and flip-flopping.

Mitt Romney is no longer a candidate the White House fears.

To speak in public with passion and integrity, your own personality attributes must lock together into a convincing narrative. Try to run away from your own true self and you’ll find your audience can run even faster! This was the strength behind Rick Santorum, and the weakness behind Mitt Romney.

Problematically for Romney, it is also the strength behind Barack Obama.

Iowa Caucuses: Battles won, Wars lost

by Peter Watts

Here come the caucuses, and I don’t mean the mountain range between Europe and Asia. This is the process by which the US Republican Party will choose the individual who faces-off against President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

The past months have seen candidates spreading their message like farmers spreading silage in the Fall; generously, fragrantly, and in every direction. Wednesday January 3rd will yield the first results in the form of the Iowa caucus.

For the Presenters’ Blog, it’s too much of an opportunity to pass-up. Every so often between now and November, when the whole process crescendos to a conclusion, we’ll drop in to see what learning points the participants have laid out for presenters.

For this first visit, I’d like to focus on two particular candidates while they are still in the race: Mr. Rick Santorum and Mrs. Michele Bachmann.

Santorum and Bachmann are hard-right social conservatives. Their demongraphic, and yes I did mean to spell it that way,  is the hardcore religious-right, an audience motivated by purity to a bible-based value set. Santorum and Bachmann have therefore competed to out-do each other in condemning everything and everyone that isn’t in straight agreement with the bible. For that matter, they’ve spent most of their time simply condemning anyone who isn’t straight.

Their focus has been to pursue a niche in the market, and make it their own. From a public speaking point-of-view they win full-marks for “know thy audience”. Here’s the danger though: In seeking to appeal specifically to one audience segment, both have lost sight of the bigger picture. They have made themselves highly electable to a specific group, while making themselves unelectable to the wider population.

Furthermore it’s possible that in future primaries such as New Hampshire, electorates could respond with a backlash specifically against these two candidates. If we reach a point where even other Republicans are motivated to go to the polls simply to reject Santorum and Bachmann, then the size of the challenge facing them in the November election becomes fully apparent.

Let’s compare their approach to that taken by two other candidates, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Both these candidates, while having ticked the “faith” box, have avoided elevating social values as their number one topic. Instead they have sought to merely avoid offending the values voter. By this means they remain viable to the wider electorate without unnecessarily creating opponents to their right.

So, for the first Presenters’ Blog talking point of Election 2012 I’d like to propose:

Know your audience and seek its support, but don’t do so in such a way that you create passionate opponents where they needn’t have otherwise existed

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