A Note on Political Rhetoric

Last night Paul logged his approval of Rick Santorum’s speech, while I appended John Podhoretz’s dissent. I’m closer to JPod on this for general reasons—I’m not a big Santorum fan—though he did have some good lines in the speech, especially the line about how his immigrant grandparents got only one thing from the government: freedom.  It is not remarked upon often enough that liberals seldom talk about freedom or liberty in the classic sense.  To the contrary, in Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, the Goreacle only mentioned “individual liberty” once, and that’s when he argues that we have too much of it.  Liberals today aren’t for liberty; they are for liberation—a very different thing, usually meaning the trashing of social conventions, and requiring more government power for some people to curtail the liberty of other people (like the religious liberty of Catholic hospitals not to provide contraception).  The point is, our guys should talk about old-fashioned freedom more often, and taunt liberals as to why they always want to change the subject or redefine the phrase.

I agree with John that Ann Romney and Chris Christie were both superb, and here is a basic lesson in rhetoric straight from Aristotle’s ancient treatise.  I read the text of Christie’s speech ahead of time, and found it a bit weak in many ways.  But as Aristotle taught, the bearing and character of the speaker is as important—sometimes more important—that the mere words on the page.  I used to say that even a boring Ronald Reagan speech (and he did give a few) came across great because of his presence and skill.  He could make the phone book sound interesting.  (Likewise, ever seen a bad recitation of Shakespeare?  Ugh.)  As such Christie’s presence and delivery made the text come alive, and made it rhetorically powerful. Ditto Ann Romney; wish there could be a First Ladies debate.

But then see our friend Byron York this morning, who throws a lot of cold water on Christie’s speech, and notes a thematic inconsistency between Christie and Ann Romney.  He thinks Christie’s speech was not a success.  This is a good example of how similarly minded people react to the same text.  To paraphrase a pre-recalled Barbie, politics is hard.

I have two grumps of my own about two specific tropes of current political rhetoric that show up in the speeches both political parties.  The first is “we created jobs.”  Most of the Republican governors who spoke yesterday—McDonnell, Kasich, and Haley—used this formula.  The problem with “we created jobs” is that jobs are not “created” ex nihilo like God in Genesis, nor are they created by government.  More precisely, we should say that jobs are generated—but they are generated overwhelmingly by private sector investment.  To be sure, government policy helps create (a proper use of the term) a favorably investment climate for investment that produces new jobs, and that includes infrastructure rightly understood.

In other words, the “created” language subtly abets Obama’s “you didn’t build that” argument.  Better to convey the idea that government improves the conditions of freedom (that term again) that enables Americans to generate growth and employment, rather than making it seem like government is the entity “creating” the jobs.

The second fingernails-on-blackboard trope is “grow the economy.”  Never mind the dubious grammar of using “grow” as a transitive verb.  This sounds like the economy is a plant, and if we just pour on some government water it will grow.  Let us not forget that Bill Clinton was the originator of this phrase, and like “create jobs,” it abets the view that government is the prime mover of the economy.

I say let us retire these two clichés of political rhetoric, and come up with more precise formulas that better convey a substantive conservative understanding of the primacy of the private sector over the public sector.