Advancing a Free Society

Addressing Candidates’ Speech Defects

Friday, February 17, 2012

With another debate not until next Wednesday (maybe the last of the primary season) and votes not scheduled until the Tuesday after that (Feb. 28 – Michigan and Arizona), let’s take a moment to examine the big-picture needs of the four Republicans remaining in the presidential hunt.

In three cases, there’s an argument to be made for a big speech to help change the contender’s current trajectory.

The fourth candidate doesn’t need much in the way of an adjustment (ironically, that would be Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the contender with the longest odds against him).

As for those three speeches, let’s begin with . . .

Mitt Romney. These aren’t pleasant times to be in the camp of the GOP frontrunner. Michigan could go to Rick Santorum in what would be considered a major upset (it’s Romney’s native state; he won the Wolverine primary back in 2008). As for Arizona, presumably it’s Romney’s to lose. Again, Santorum threatens. The suggestion here: Romney needs a speech to define what exactly he believes. That should have been achieved at the recent CPAC conference; it wasn’t (that includes the unfortunate adjectival choice of “severely” to describe his self-proclaimed conservative stewardship of Massachusetts – “severely” being a word typically reserved for migraines and thunderstorms, not ideology. Romney’s problem throughout this campaign has been trying to convince skeptical movement conservatives that he is indeed a genuine convert to their cause after nearly decades in the political wilderness (a run apiece for senator (1994), governor (2002) and president). Interestingly, that’s roughly the same timespan as Ronald Reagan stumping for Harry Truman in 1948 and, 16 years later, delivering the “A Time for Choosing” address on Barry Goldwater’s behalf. But with an important distinction: Reagan’s conversion was based on real-life experiences: Screen Actors Guild president; touring GE plants; the feeling that the Democratic Party left him, not the other way around. Romney needs to explain not only his guiding philosophy, but also what prompted his ideological evolution – like Reagan, real-life experiences, not campaign stratagems that conservatives suspect.

Rick Santorum. Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that Santorum pulls off the improbable and becomes the Republican nominee (worst stretch of the week, btw: comparing the underdog Santorum to underdog pro-basketball sensation Jeremy Lin). With Santorum as the standard-bearer, that beeping noise you’ll hear is the Democratic National Committee backing up a big truck to dump a ton of hurt on the nominee – all under the same banner: Santorum thinks women are second-class citizens. Among the stories to make their way into the news-cycle in the past couple of weeks: then-Sen. Santorum saying back in 2006 that contraception was “harmful to women”; presidential candidate Santorum suggesting women might be emotionally challenged to engage in combat; Santorum, in his 2005 book It Takes a Family, lamenting that too many women work outside the home. This is how a Santorum-Obama general election would look: daily attacks from the President’s surrogates suggesting the Republican is more Neanderthal than neocon. The suggestion here: while some think Santorum needs to address his views on separation of church and state, the more pressing need is the generation gap that Democrats are certain to exploit come the fall.

Newt Gingrich. I’m cheating here, because Gingrich visited the Hoover Institution earlier this week and discussed how he plans to come back from the dead a third time – staying positive, and staying on message while Romney and Santorum make it ugly-personal in Arizona and Michigan. The fuel for Gingrich’s hoped-for comeback: rising gasoline prices. Gingrich wants to lower gas to $2.50 a gallon via a national strategy that includes immediate implementation of the Keystone Pipeline, domestic offshore oil exploration and drilling, and opening up federal lands for development. Seeing as he’s not competing in Arizona and Michigan, there’s an easy way to judge whether this “wait and see” approach is smart politics: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia (Gingrich’s home turf) all vote during the first two Tuesdays of March. If Gingrich is to stay in the race, at a minimum he has to rack up delegates in his backyard. And that begins with tough populist talk on gasoline – and rising consumer prices that hit the working class in the wallet.

Ron Paul. The late Vince Lombardi supposedly said that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”. That was until 2012 and the Paul campaign, whose purpose in life isn’t to win most primaries and caucuses (still-in-doubt Maine being an exception) but instead to amass delegates. To the extent that the Texas congressman has an end game, it’s having a say in the party’s platform and a voice when it comes to getting a quality speaking slot at the national convention. Otherwise, the Paul to watch might not be the father but the son – Rand, the freshman senator from Kentucky. Assuming the father passes the torch to the son as the leader of this GOP faction, does the younger Paul begin to stake out positions that would enable him to expand that base should he follow his father’s example in 2016 (this foreign policy clash with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – Georgia’s admission for NATO membership – looking very much like a trailer for a future presidential debate).