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The Gift of Gab

With Mitt Romney as its candidate, could the GOP find that its long national nightmare of verbal inadequacy is over?

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Many centuries ago, Aristotle analyzed success in political persuasion along three dimensions: logos (the quality of argument), pathos (the power of emotional appeal), and ethos (admiration or respect for the character of the speaker). Barack Obama in 2008 enjoyed the trifecta. He was universally lauded for his keen intellect, his mastery of the details of policy, and, in debates, his reasoned style. (Joe Biden, surely qualified to judge, later opined that Obama had a “brain bigger than his skull.”) He could speak in informal settings like an intellectual, even an academic, as in explaining in one of the Democratic primary debates that he and Hillary had a “philosophical difference” on health care—that difference, incidentally, being over the requirement that citizens purchase health insurance, which Obama then “philosophically” opposed. As for pathos, Obama had it to burn, launching an inspirational appeal to hope and change that captured the imaginations of millions worldwide, from humble urban dwellers in Cairo to sophisticated postmoderns in Paris. Finally, Obama was thought to have the makings of greatness, from his perfectly creased pants to his vision of a new future for America and the world.

It is no secret that Obama has lost ground on all three dimensions. Until recently, many who disagreed with him still liked or admired him. Now even that is beginning to fade, as his opponents have come increasingly to regard him as arrogant and duplicitous. More important, over the last few months even some of Obama’s supporters in 2008 have started openly questioning his preparation for the job and his competence. “What people say when he is not in the room,” Mortimer Zuckerman told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published on October 15, “is astonishing.” 

Obama’s pathetic appeal has both changed and diminished. A soaring rhetoric of unity has given way to a bitter politics of division. Anger has replaced hope as the dominant emotion. There is no lift left. It may be on the dimension of logos, however, that Obama has suffered most. People do not doubt that he is smooth and articulate, though they have wondered at his addiction to the teleprompter. But they have come to dismiss the logic or reason of his arguments. Both in the health care debate and in the debate on the deficit, more and more are convinced that his figures just don’t add up, and—going back to character—that he knows they don’t add up. His cleverness is fooling no one. 

And Mitt Romney? His candidacy today has impressed many who once counted him out or wished him out. He has won the admiration, sometimes grudging, of many doubters for the way he has thought through every issue and is able to express his views. No one is pretending that he is an inspirational candidate, and he has not made the mistake of trying to be. Travel the byways of Iowa and New Hampshire, and you won’t see very many “I love Mitt” signs. Nor is his full character held up as a paragon. Nothing in his biography is truly stirring, and the various evolutions in his political positions do not make him a hero as a leader of conviction. His strength on the dimension of ethos lies in his steadiness and the probity of his family life and personal character.

The shape of the Romney campaign is now clear. His bet is that conservatives will be satisfied that he is conservative enough to be their standard-bearer; that Republicans will want a candidate who can go up against Obama in debate without a handicap; and that the American people generally, having had their fill of charisma and inspiration, will be looking for competence attached to sound judgment. The era of world historical leadership is over, for the time being. Now is the moment not for the narrow manager but for the sound CEO, someone ready and prepared to step in and run the country.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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