When judging political speeches I try hard to put aside my feelings about the underlying philosophy long enough to assess what the speaker was trying to do, how they tried to do it and how well. On that basis I did think there were a number of fairly strong speeches at both the Republican and Democratic conventions, along with some poor efforts. Romney’s, for instance, hit his target squarely. And yes, I thought Obama’s was quite good too – including being relatively sedate. Soaring oratory would just have confirmed the growing suspicion that he’s a silver-tongued nothing. But I continue to have a major complaint.
In classical rhetoric, a key part of any argument is the “refutatio,” where you summarize your opponents’ case and explain why it’s wrong. By summarize I don’t mean mock, though there’s a place for that. Nor do I just mean you say what they want to do. I mean you explain why they think their policies would work, show that you understand their appeal to people you’re trying to reach, and then argue that they won’t work and why.
It seems to me that almost no one made any effort in this direction at either convention. When you compare the amount of genuine refutatio mixed in with polemics in, say, the Lincoln-Douglas debates with the amount we saw in Tampa and Charlotte, it’s discouraging.
It may also be a major missed opportunity. Reflecting on former president Bill Clinton’s DNC speech, Andrew Coyne just wrote:
That is another lesson that people in politics ought to have learned by now: substance sells. You don’t have to spoonfeed audiences. You really can talk to them as if they were adults.
I wish more people would try it.