If, as most pundits now believe, Mitt Romney has the inside track for the Republican nomination, he is the first GOP candidate in more than a generation not to be syntactically challenged. Just look at the list of the party’s choices since Richard Nixon, whether elected (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush) or defeated (Gerald Ford, Robert Dole, John McCain). Whatever other attributes these candidates possessed, facility in extemporaneous exchange was not one of them. None of these men could be counted on to handle a challenging question, let alone always keep noun and verb somewhere near their rightful places.
This deficiency took a psychological toll on the Republican faithful over the years. Hours before a presidential debate or a major interview or press conference, Republicans, nerves frayed, would begin beseeching heaven that their candidate might escape disaster. Could he get through without denying that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe (Gerald Ford in 1976) or leaving some imaginary figure, a century hence, wandering aimlessly down a California coastal highway (Ronald Reagan in 1984)?
With Mitt, at last, Republicans can sleep easy. Agree with him or not, this is a man who’s not about to be stumped. Romney’s verbal repertoire even extends to a capability that Republicans had forgotten still existed: nuance. Romney displayed his adeptness in the New Hampshire debate three weeks ago when parrying a challenge about the complexity of his 59-point plan from Herman Cain. Without hesitation, and with no hint of condescension, Mitt explained “that simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate.” Not exactly an answer that Bob Dole would have come up with on the spot. And he showed that he could stand up for himself as well, going toe-to-toe with Rick Perry last week in Las Vegas in the epic battle for the microphone.
Romney’s debate performances the first time around, in 2007-08, were not always so well honed. To his credit, he used his four years of practice to master the craft. This kind of hard work and discipline in an executive may be exactly what the American people are looking for this time. Besides, the simple truth is that there are few absolute naturals in this business.
The template for Republican verbal inadequacy was established before the Nixon era by President Eisenhower. Ike became known from his press conferences as one of the English language’s great manglers, to the delight of reporters bent on depicting him as some kind of fool. This view of Ike prevailed for a time until presidential scholars, led by Fred Greenstein, began to point out that not only was he a demanding taskmaster of the written word—he had prepared speeches for General MacArthur in the 1930s—but his imprecision was sometimes deliberate or studied. “It is far better,” Eisenhower once noted, “to stumble or speak guardedly than to move ahead smoothly and risk imperiling the country.”
Across the aisle, meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate in 1952 and 1956, spoke like an intellectual. The intelligentsia, the cheapest date around, embraced him as one of their own, beginning a love affair with the Democratic party that has endured ever since. No matter what the truth, the thinking classes, with the sophisticated journalists following obediently behind, have regarded the Democrats as their kind and most Republicans as dunces. Republicans’ verbal struggles provided just enough cover to make the charge plausible.
Nixon stands as the exception. An articulate speaker, he was usually at ease handling difficult questions. But even Nixon caused Republicans much mental anguish. No one could know when his suppressed feelings of inferiority or self-pity might come bubbling to the surface, as in his promise to the press, after losing the California governor’s race in 1962, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon prided himself on being an accomplished debater, and he showed as much in the first-ever televised presidential debate against John F. Kennedy, whom the media were already touting as a great intellect. Nixon was judged to be victorious in surveys of those who listened on radio, though the opposite was the case for TV viewers. The simple fact was that Kennedy was handsome, while Nixon couldn’t get a clean shave.
It has added no luster to the history of American rhetoric that the institutionalization of presidential debates, which began in 1976, featured a matchup between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Neither man was a Churchill, though Carter, an engineer by training, could be precise almost to a fault. (Certainly no one in 1976 would have suspected that Carter, in retirement, would publish a book of poetry.) Ford was another matter. He spoke slowly and deliberately, but he managed nonetheless to jumble his syntax and leave his phrases dangling. Smooth he was not. Perhaps to his credit, he could not talk and chew gum at the same time.
Ronald Reagan remains the most intriguing of the Republicans. Known today as the Great Communicator, he was superb in the set speech. At any given moment, he could also shine in debate or extemporaneous speech with a great quip or a beautiful one-liner. But even his admirers conceded that he was never one to be concerned with mastering all the details. And they worried continually at what he might come up with, as in his remark in 1981 that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles” (a claim that scientists more than two decades later discovered to be not entirely off-base). Reagan’s weakness in this mode of communication was seized on by his opponents, whose efforts to depict him as a simpleton knew no bounds. Liberal intellectuals, who in this era were less taken than they are today with the intellectual prowess of Hollywood stars, repeatedly belittled Reagan for gleaning his deepest thoughts from the scripts of B-movies. Yet as in Eisen-hower’s case, historians in the decade after Reagan’s retirement discovered that he had read widely and for years carefully crafted his own speeches.
The post-Reagan era has served only to confirm the weakness of the Republicans’ extemporaneous speaking skills. George Bush père was never thought unintelligent—he had served in posts demanding intellectual ability, like ambassador to China and head of the CIA—but fluent in speaking he was not. He was a chronic assailant of English syntax, and his victory over the more articulate Michael Dukakis owed nothing to his skill at debating or answering questions. Bush’s fate four years later was to encounter a man, Bill Clinton, who was one of the more gifted talkers in American history. A Rhodes scholar, a quick study, and a master of every dossier, Clinton could talk intelligently, or seem to, about almost any subject. (His problem, if he had one, was that he could not stop talking.) To put Bill Clinton four years later in the ring with Bob Dole was an act of rhetorical cruelty. Master of the one-liner, Dole unfortunately found himself in situations where it was necessary to string together a second and third line.
George W. Bush was much better in both debate and spontaneous exchange than his critics made out. He clearly bested Al Gore in the debates in 2000, though this was more the result of Gore’s own implosion than Bush’s skill; and he held his own against John Kerry, whom the liberal media had built up as an intellectual giant. Still, Bush’s mispronunciations, for example of “nuclear,” and his neologisms, like “misunderestimate,” became the constant fare of late-night comedians. It was no plus for the intellectual distinction of the president that his press secretary, Scott McClellan, defended his deficiency, noting that “Al Gore had perfect diction, and we still beat him. We’ve got a different kind of diction, it’s a good diction.” Far more important, no one listening to Bush would ever say that he could express his thoughts with ease. The joint press conferences he held with Tony Blair were painful displays of how much this deficiency hurt him. Blair, in full command of the language, could express what Bush could only hint at.
Much the same was evident in the Obama-McCain debates in 2008. John McCain could be sharp and concise in many matters of foreign affairs, but when it came to articulating his views on economic issues, he could not cover his weaknesses. To say it was a struggle would be charitable. Obama might not have been quite the master that some expected him to be, but even so, the contest was unequal.
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.