McCain, Obama and the Rhetoric Gap

On the last night of primary season, both John McCain and Barack Obama spoke before national television audiences. The contrast was not a favorable one for McCain. It was even worse with the sound turned off.

The text of the speech was fine, even innovative in some places, as McCain laid out the beginnings of a reform agenda and began to question Obama’s New Politics bona fides. However, even sympathetic Republican observers noted McCain’s scene — complete with a dreary suit, the glaring lights which washed out his complexion, and the pea-green background board — were no match for the Xcel Center where Obama spoke to 25,000 screaming fans. Moreover, McCain does not talk in the inspiring manner and voice of his opponent. The contrast was painfully obvious.

Well, some would argue that presidents don’t govern from basketball arenas and some of Obama’s rhetoric verges on self-parody, as in this passage:

“I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

But politics, after all, is the art of inspiring people to follow you. And the contrast in excitement, energy and sheer newness greatly favors Obama in this particular election which, as Hillary Clinton learned the hard way, really is about “change.”

To put in plainly, McCain needs to find a way to narrow the rhetoric gap.

One surefire way not to do this would be to disparage or demean Obama’s oratory, as Clinton tried unsuccessfully to do. Telling people not to be inspired just makers the accuser sound like a grump.

Instead, McCain would do well to avoid side-by-side comparisons of the type he tried last Tuesday, and instead do three things.

First, as he has already done with his offer of town hall meetings, he should try to coax Obama into settings with live audiences, unexpected questions and a few irascible voters. McCain is well practiced in handling all of these and can draw on a reservoir of knowledge to answer obscure questions. Obama, as we saw in the Philadelphia debate, can become, as Time magazine’s Mark Halperin described him, “surly” when the heat is on.

The difference between Obama’s oratorical performances on a stage before enthusiastic crowds and those at press avails, for example, is striking. If McCain can get him to play on his turf, it’ll help.

Second, if Obama gives media pundits prose to admire, McCain gives them intimacy and access. Part of the rhetoric game, of course, is the impact it has on media, who relay the contrasting scenes and the corresponding impressions of the candidate to the vast majority of voters who never really see or hear speeches themselves. In the 2000 Republican primary, McCain won the affections of the media by overwhelming them with access and giving them near round-the-clock attention. He can do that again, and thereby highlight the degree to which Obama is cloistered from media access. Once again by shifting the focus, here from the arena to the campaign bus, McCain can try to convey that he is the candidate who is most transparent and also the least scripted.

Finally, McCain has a certain self-deprecating humor, a delight in not taking himself or the artifices of campaigning too seriously. Poking fun at his own “uncoolness” and down-to-earth qualities may appeal to voters, especially older ones, who are a bit skeptical, even wary, of Obama-mania. He need not criticize his opponent; he can instead slyly suggest that, contrary to the Canon camera ad tagline, image isn’t, in fact, everything, at least when it comes to picking a president. McCain, Obama and the Rhetoric Gap