Review of Chris Christie RNC Keynote

From WHWG & Reagan speechwriting shop colleague Josh Gilder, emailed just as Christie was finishing:

“A lot of generalities…shades of Mondale (“shared sacrifice”)…not concrete or specific enough to make the case against Obama or for Romney…even his own story about what he did in NJ wasn’t really compelling…

“Saying we need leaders to change polls, not follow polls….but Obama doesn’t follow polls…if he did, he wouldn’t have pushed through Obamacare and still be committed to it.

“Well delivered, but just not good enough…

“Way too much talk about shared sacrifice. Do we remember how many states Mondale won? Otherwise known as Mondale ONE.

“Now Chris Wallace is saying one thumb up for Ann Romney…one thumb down for Chris Christie….

“Points out correctly that he hardly said anything about Romney.”

Communications Advice for Mitt Romney

From my weekly column on

Anyone who has been in a presidential campaign knows that everyone has advice for how you can do better. Right now everyone is telling Mitt Romney: You need to do a better job of connecting. Not me. Yes, I have advice – just not that advice.

The campaign is in its battle of the agendas phase. The two sides are fighting over whose definition of the key issues before the nation will dominate discussion in October and early November.

You would think that with an economy stagnated at a disturbingly low level, unprecedented national debt that our top military man has said itself is a threat to our security, net-job-killing federal spending and troubles around the globe, both sides would be agreed on the serious questions facing us.

Instead the president has invented one war after another that he contends Mitt Romney is waging on the rest of us: wars on women, on the middle class, even on puppies, until it turned out that the president has eaten puppies.

By law, candidates must approve every message their apparatus puts out. If you had any doubts about how nice a guy Mr. Obama is, look at the way his campaign has stuck to the angry (bordering on hate-filled) message of businessman Romney shipping jobs overseas long after it has been revealed the former governor did no such thing. In his rise to prominence, Mr. Obama was fortunate that dirt emerged on several strong opponents, who then became unviable. The persistence of his campaign in trying to manufacture dirt on Mr. Romney leaves me, at least, wondering if those earlier revelations were the result of luck alone.

The Romney campaign has been focused and disciplined in its response, answering through surrogates when appropriate (particularly when the Democrats have misrepresented the governor’s economic achievements in Massachusetts) but not getting distracted from the president’s failed economic performance.

The president has plenty of money, having reportedly conducted by now more political fundraisers than his four immediate predecessors combined. And yet considering the intensity of Team Obama’s attacks, plenty of money looks like plenty of nothing. Yes, the polls have moved a little. But by and large, despite the full frontal assault, in the major swing states, the Real Clear Politics average of polls puts Mr. Romney substantially ahead of where he was at the toughest points in March, April and May. In all cases, the spread between the candidates is within polling’s margin of error.

So what is my advice to the Romney entourage?

First, pay more attention to pictures. The best press event the Romney people have staged in the last sixty days was the surprise visit to Solyndra headquarters. The picture of the lavish facility fit perfectly with the candidate’s remarks, a serendipity typical of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. Too often, though, Team Romney’s stage settings borrow more from George W. Bush, depending on words pasted to a banner or stuck to a podium (“More Jobs. Less Debt. Smaller Government.”) to tell their tale. The Reagan method says more and excites emotions better than the Bush one. It connects. Go with Reagan.

Second, pay more attention to soundbites. Governor Romney’s speeches are well crafted, intelligently argued and draw a clear distinction between his vision and the president’s. His speechwriters are very good. There is a need, though, to work harder on defining phrases.

As cable television has come to dominate coverage and millions may see large portions of even minor stump appearances, campaigns have de-emphasized the catchy, memorable formulations that were the staples of the old network evening news broadcasts. The Romney campaign should bring back the soundbite. Mostly this requires asking the question for each event, “What phrase or sentence do we want people taking away with them?”

Third, pay more attention to merchandizing the message. Brief the media in greater detail before and after each press event — fact sheets, experts available on the press bus, that sort of thing. In other words, tell them what you are going to tell them, followed with telling them what you told them – and providing the kind of background that gives depth and detail to a story.

Yes, I know friends will still tell Governor Romney that he needs to connect more – some magical transformation of personality and delivery. I don’t buy it. He is who he is. He’s done very well with that over the years, including in the least hospitable state for a Republican in the nation. The challenge is easier. It is just a matter of doing it.

What has the long primary march gained the GOP?

Both Romney and Santorum gave strong speeches tonight, primary night in Michigan and Arizona. Both are focusing their indictments of the president: Santorum zeroing in on the administration’s anti-energy policy and the decline of manufacturing as a proportion of jobs; Romney going after spending, debt and growth broadly.

Both have understood that the GOP can’t sit back and wait for the president’s miserable performance to bring him down all by itself. A candidate must define his opponent’s failure, then use that as a springboard to defining an alternative.

Everyone is saying that the long contest has been bad for the GOP. But none of the candidates had shaped and internalized these messages event four weeks ago. So in this long march something may have been lost, but something has also been gained.

SOTU Agenda: I rule the world

It sounded like such a soft, even conservative speech.

But let me get this straight:

1) banks will be punished (do I understand this right, by a committee headed by Eric Holder?) if their lending is too risky,

2) and they will be required (by another special committee, I believe) to give more home loans (meaning to people who would otherwise not qualify for the loans, or else the government would not have to be involved) at lower rates (which means rates that do not compensate them as much as the market says they need to be compensated for the risks they are taking, all of which sounds like a new edition of the policies that brought on the financial collapse),

3) which must mean that they will have to pull back on risky lending someplace other than homes,

4) the only place that most banks would be able to pull back on riskier customers would be loans to small and new businesses,

5) but these are the businesses that have created just about all the jobs over the last 20 years and he said early in the speech he wants to encourage them,

6) so maybe their growth capital will come from selling stock to the kinds of people who invest in new and small businesses,

7) but through the Buffet Rule he’s going to double the tax rate on investment income for those people, meaning that, like the banks, they can’t be fully compensated for the risk of backing small and new businesses,

8. so they will not invest more in small and new companies but in big established firms,

9) so more of those small and new firms will have to turn to the government for capital,

10) which luckily he said would up its investing in early stage businesses with “the best” ideas,

11) “the best” ideas meaning, I guess, as with Solyndra, ideas that advance his agenda through companies whose owners support his candidacy),

12) or maybe it would be companies that agree to invite unionization (since the unions have failed to organize the new and dynamic sectors of the economy, which is why they have been shrinking),

13) but then with the big businesses, he wants to punish American companies if they invest overseas,

14) and he wants to increase exports,

15) but being competitive in the global markets often means having part of your production near your markets, which is why many companies have opened production facilities abroad and many foreign companies (BMW and Honda, for example) have opened their facilities here,

16) so he’ll make these companies less competitive, meaning less able to export anything that might be paired with some other product the company makes abroad in order to attract buyers,

17) and it also means he’ll have the U.S. ignoring many of the international trading rules of which we have been the principal sponsor since the end of WWII, rules that have led to an incredible growth in widely shared wealth all over the planet,

18) which means that, if he follows through, he’ll blow up the post-WWII global economic system,

19) which in the very short run may help the uncompetitive American labor unions but in the not-so-long run would devastate every economy on earth,

20) but it would also mean he would be in a position to decide where big companies could invest, and when, just as he’ll be in control of all new and small businesses, too.

I believe that’s what I heard the president advocate tonight. Am I wrong?

GOP Debate #1: Romney’s authenticity gap

Listening to the candidates debate tonight, I come away with one overriding feeling, a result both of how they delivered their remarks and what they actually said: Romney has memorized a series of positions; Gingrich has thought every issue through and is fully and emotionalluy committed to it. Though not close to catching a break in the polls, Santorum and Paul communicate depth and conviction, too, just like Newt. Romney may share that clarity of thought and intensity of feeling, as well, but he doesn’t convey it. It is hard to imagine him coming out ahead in Florida and later primaries until he closes this authenticity gap.

SC Gingrich Blowout

In his acceptance speech tonight, Newt Gingrich showed the power of the podium. He set the foundation for pulling his rivals behind him, should he win the nomination. He praised their speeches of the evening and said they are collectively representative of the nation. More, he began to define the fall campaign: Declaration of Independence America v. Alinsky America. All four candidates have reached to define the election but Gingrich has been the most effective. Have we ever seen a race turn so completely on two debate performances in a single week?

SC Second Debate: Gingrich Wins Again

Gingrich’s handling of the question about ABC interview with his second wife was brilliant. Who would have thought in such a position that the accused emerge as the man of passionate principle? It probably won not just the debate but the South Carolina primary for him.

All the candidates were very strong, the best debating ensemble ever in a presidential campaign. But Gingrich turned the race around with the passion, imagination, cogency and inspiration of his Monday performance. He demonstrated the impact of great rhetoric. And he did it in a field that, at least in debate, is extraordinary.

In SC GOP Debate, looking for the WOW factor

The GOP candidates have become hugely impressive in debate. Informed. Able to turn attacks around and give it back even better. Crisp and detailed in laying out their positions. But Gingrich stood out. He got a standing ovation just before a commercial break. Throughout, he projected authenticity of passion. And again and again, he was original, witty, driving sharp, resonating distinctions between the GOP and the Obama administration. He may just have revived his candidacy tonight. Keep in mind, this was on a night when all were strong.

Tonight’s Presidential Address (from my column today on Hugh

Here is some advice to the White House about tonight’s presidential television address.

I take an interest in presidential speech giving. I wrote speeches in the White House for nearly two-thirds of the Reagan presidency, the first half of that time for the Vice President, second half for the President.

Presidential rhetoric is an instrument of presidential power and an aspect of presidential duty. Particularly when putting the prestige of the nation on the line, any president –every president — must convey clarity about the mission, confidence in his decision, faith in the nation’s purpose and its leadership in the world, prudence in pursuing national interest, perspective about the historical framework of the action, and determination about seeing things through.

These are not just matters of political posturing and the personal interests of the man in the office himself. These are matters of leadership that only the man in the Oval Office can provide. They are matters of his duty to the American people who elected him and the office he occupies. They are part of what every president swears to when he raises his hand on Inauguration Day and pledges to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

By these measures, the last few weeks have been among the worst for presidential rhetoric on record. In the last seven days alone, how many times have we heard cries from both Left and Right that there is no clarity about the goal of our mission in Libya? How much confidence has been conveyed in contradictory statements about the participation of the U.S., whether we are involved or not involved or sort of involved?

It began before

Libya. How much leadership was there when one member of the administration said Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator and should not step down, only for others in the administration to do an about face a few days later? Yes, I know that Joseph Biden is the vice president, not the president, but he was speaking for the White House. Presidential rhetoric sometimes extends beyond the words of the top man himself.

And yes, I know that the situation in Egypt was changing rapidly and difficult to discern, as it has been everywhere in the Middle East during this period. But Milton’s reflection on his blindness can sometimes apply to presidential rhetoric, particularly when events and intelligence reports leave you close to blind: “They also serve who stand and wait.” A sense of nuance, of framing statement to say enough but not too much, of restraint is also part of the task and art of the job.

In talking about leadership, I am not criticizing the supposed lead role of the British and the French in Libya, or the overall generalship of a Canadian in the operation. If those countries are ready to pitch in, that is all for the good. We are carrying a lot of packs in the Middle East and globally. If other western democracies can assume more cost and lift a greater share of the weight, by all means let them.

But it is essential to keep in mind that resources are not the only reason for American global leadership. More than any other nation, we are inclined by temperament, history, national governance, and tradition to step back and look at the good of the whole. The term honest broker is used too much in national and global affairs, but it is nevertheless true that the U.S. is the world’s only reliably honest broker. A president who coveys confidence in the place of the U.S. in the world helps preserve that role – a role essential to long run world peace.

The current president has not, to put it mildly, conveyed great assurance about U.S. global leadership. And in the past few weeks, as that leadership has been needed, his statements have done nothing to recover from that lapse or reclaim that sense of assurance.

Nor has he in his presidency displayed much historical awareness. For example, going back more than a year, his remark in Normandy on the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, left at least this listener with a sense that he and his staff barely understood what had happened six and a half decades before or how much a duty the legacy of those event placed on all Americans who followed.

So tonight’s talk is an opportunity to start setting the current president’s rhetorical house in order. In the past several months in particular, but from early in the term as well, that house has been a mess and getting messier.

It is time for a little spring cleaning.


OK, why was the SOU so flat?

Well, #1) the buddy system seating — Ds mixed with Rs — apparently kept the Ds from getting up a wave. They were too dispersed. So the applause was too. It often sounded as though only one or two would start, then look around, see no one with them, and stop in embarrassment. But besides staging, why?

#2) With the exception of medical liability reform, on specifics Mr. Obama seemed still to be using soft words to conceal unyielding positions, as in, let’s freeze the budget immediately after I spend another trillion on toys for prep school boys like clean energy and high speed rail and everything else I can think of. This bate and switch act is old.

How about Congressman Paul Ryan’s reply?

Ryan is a better man than his speech, which was wrong for the occasion. Compared to the epic poem that is the SOU itself, the reply is an op-ed: short, fast, to the point. So like an op-ed, the reply needs to focus in on one specific and build its point.

To my knowledge, only one reply has ever upstaged a presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, and that was Senator Robert Dole’s to Clinton on Hillarycare. And Dole did it with a graphic, a chart showing the bureaucracy the bill would build.

Here’s the upshot: Ryan tried too hard to tell us deep truths we already knew; the president did the opposite.

Disappointing night.

Time to give up on Oval Office speeches?

The best thing that can be said about last night’s second Oval Office performance is that it wasn’t as bad as Mr. Obama’s first Gulf Oil spill address. Still, it was pretty bad.

The president announced that combat operations are over — but 50,000 troops (all combat trained, commentators said) are remaining, including 5,000 special forces soldiers.

He implied that, in keeping a campaign promise, the withdrawal was a product of administration initiative — except that the schedule and other specifics of the withdrawal were negotiated by the Bush administration before it left office.

He said we were going to stay in Afghanistan and use the money we had been spending in Iraq to that struggle — although we would begin pulling out next year.

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Emerson famously wrote. But how about foolish inconsistency? I am not a supporter of the president, but I like to see the game played well. Last night it was as if a rookie took the mound, and I’m not talking about Stephen Strasburg

For Financiers, Glass Pockets Are No Longer Enough

In 1909, as the federal government was first moving towards regulation of the financial industry, J.P. Morgan is said to have told friends, “The time is coming when all business will have to be done in glass pockets.” Goldman Sachs is about to find that, for the financial world today, glass pockets are no longer good enough.

The SEC’s civil suit against Goldman charges that, through a partner company, the investment bankers packaged particularly troubled mortgages into collateralized debt obligations, the now notorious CDOs. After Goldman sold the allegedly designed-to-fail instruments, the partner shorted them. Goldman collected fees for assembling and marketing the package (later offset, the firm contends, by larger losses). The partner reportedly netted a billion dollars on its short positions.

The Wall Street Journal front page story characterized the SEC’s charges as the biggest Wall Street-Washington confrontation since the Michael Milken-Drexel case at the end of the 1980s. The Journal might have added that Milken’s was the most prominent of a larger package of investigations targeting the investment community. Despite a parade of so-called perp-walks, when financiers were led into custody as cameras clicked, almost none of those actions produced convictions. The Milken case led to a fine and prison time but remains controversial to this day. Many, myself included, believe justice was miscarried.

Major financial players face a formidable communications obstacle when they become the targets of such sweeping legal actions. Most attorneys — both prosecutors and their own defense attorneys — and journalists don’t actually understand what they do. The complexity of modern fiance bewilders them. And they are predisposed to assume that complexity equals opacity and opacity equals fraud of one stripe or another.

I am not passing judgment on the government’s case against Goldman here, though the purchasers of the CDO were among the most experienced and sophisticated players in the financial world. If any buyers were capable of being intelligently beware, it was they. But I am saying that Goldman must learn to explain its business with unprecedented clarity, otherwise, the legal, political, and journalistic worlds will judge them guilty and exact huge penalties long before any trial.

Morgan’s glass pockets suggested passive transparency. Pull back the fabric; let in the light. Goldman will need actively to project the light outward, making the complex both simple and comprehensible. For an institution unaccustomed to talking to non-experts, the challenge is sure to prove formidable.

Time to Put Away Domestic Summits

The Obama White House seems to have two answers for every big communications challenge. The first, a presidential speech. The second, a domestic summit.

We can debate later why the President’s speeches have stopped persuading the public. Here I want to say a word about all these domestic summits. The word is, Why?

Why does the Obama White House keep staging these fiascos?

Has any of them worked? The beer summit was silly and off-putting. The jobs summit highlighted the failure of the President’s economic program. Now the health care summit has exposed the falseness of the claim that the Republicans have no health care programs. And it left the President looking like the rote reciter of talking points, a hat he was trying to slip on the Congressional GOP.

So advice to the White House: enough of the summits already. One senseless summit is understandable. We all make mistakes. The second is questionable. Didn’t you learn the first time? The third makes no sense at all.

Michelle Obama Shows The Way

If the embattled OBama Administration wants a lesson in how to handle public communications, they could do no better than to watch and copy the First Lady.

In a recent interview Mrs. Obama was asked to opine on former Alaska governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This came days after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had taken with a childish, tasteless jab at Mrs. Palin, in the process making his boss and the entire administration look cheap. As most of America knows, Gibbs wrote notes on his hand, making fun of the former governor for doing the same to guide herself in a speech. Innumerable commentators noted that, with a principal who overuses the TelePrompter, it was unseemly for the Press Secretary to have pulled such a belittling stunt.

In contrast, when asked about Mrs. Palin, Michelle Obama was the picture of graciousness, even defending Palin as a strong woman who was bound to draw criticism as a result. Through her generosity and realism, Mrs. Obama enhanced her reputation and by extension her husband’s, even as Mr. Gibbs was guilty of the opposite.

Maybe the know-it-all aides in the West Wing should take a trip over to the East Wing (where first ladies traditionally have their offices) for a refresher is good sense.

Ailes v Huffington: No Match

Roger Ailes and Arriana Huffington went head to head on today’s edition of ABC’s “This Week”. Ailes decked Huffington in Round One. She struggled back to her corner, went after him again for Round Two, and he decked her again. She didn’t come out for a third round.

Ailes was prepared. With predictable left-wing sanctimony, Huffington complained about the tone of Fox News, focusing particularly on Glenn Beck. Ailes quickly and devastatingly pointed out that she had grossly mischaracterized Beck’s words, so grossly (her quote was from a show that explored how nearly identical were the rhetoric and tactics of Hitler and Stalin; she characterized the program as a hit on contemporary Democrat) that the audience could only assume ignorance or malice on her part. In fending off her second attempt to characterize Fox News as beyond the pale, he quoted disgusting, personal attacks on him on the Huffington Post.

In the same program, Barbara Walters, who was hosting, began what seemed to be an attack on Ailes about Fox News’ hiring of Sarah Palin. Ailes noted that Fox (“fair and balanced”) has had as a commentator for the past decade Geraldine Ferraro, the only woman ever to receive the Democratic Party’s VEEP nomination, as Palin is the only woman ever to received the GOP’s nod. Score a knockout for Ailes.

It is great fun to watch a world-class pro at work. Ailes emerged the indisputable champion. By comparison, Walters and particularly Huffington ranked as hapless amateurs.