Hoover Daily Report

The GOP's Not-So-Great Communicators

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Although a lot of Republicans keep wishing otherwise, running the federal government is nothing at all like running a business. Presidents don't hire or fire members of Congress, and only a few thousand of the more than one million civilians that the federal government employs serve at the chief executive's pleasure. An aptitude for reviewing business plans or a talent for wooing investors—useless.

Presidents must instead govern by getting the rest of us to see things they way they see them. They need to interest, move and compel us. In a word, they need to be good speakers.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and the rest of the GOP field. As the candidates continue their scramble, a scorecard:

Test One: Does anybody really want to listen to this person?

Some politicians are simply a pleasure to hear. Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats still hold up. His voice is sonorous. His manner is warm and engaging. Ronald Reagan's delivery proved so enjoyable that once, drafting a speech for him on education, I worked in a long passage from Tom Sawyer purely for the pleasure of listening to the president read Mark Twain.

How many candidates has this campaign produced to whom you would listen just for fun? Only one, Herman Cain, and it may be awhile before we hear from him again.

Mr. Romney? Bland. Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul? Either forgettable or grating. Only Mr. Gingrich commands listeners' attention, yet his is the command of the factory whistle. You don't enjoy Mr. Gingrich, exactly. You just can't not listen to him.

Mr. Gingrich gets a C, each of the others, a D. This raises a problem: the need to grade these candidates on a curve.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush possesses a sweet, easy delivery; Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Rep, Paul Ryan both bring zeal and conviction to their every utterance; Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey—but you see the point. None of the GOP's most gifted speakers is running. We must therefore recalibrate. Mr. Gingrich gets an A-minus. Each of the others, a B-plus.

Test Two: Why is that candidate wagging his finger at us?

Ronald Reagan told stories, cracked jokes and limned the values all Americans share. "Vote for me," he in effect argued, "because I'm one of you." Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis by contrast sounded like policy wonks, talking less about broad values than about the details of government programs. "Vote for me," each in effect argued, "because I'm smarter than you."

For their membership in the Carter/Dukakis school of wonkishness, Messrs. Romney and Gingrich both get Cs. They don't always talk down to us. But at moments they can't help themselves.

Jon Huntsman? A grade of D. He hectors. He lectures. He waves his unusually long index finger in the air like everyone's least-favorite professor.

For their membership in the Reagan school, Mrs. Bachmann and Messrs. Santorum and Paul deserve As. They come across as regular people. Ron Paul may lose audiences when he champions isolationism or denounces the Fed, but even then he seems like somebody's excitable uncle, not an intellectual snob.

Rick Perry merits a special word. He's relaxed, appealing, a regular guy, a committed student in the Reagan school . . . and yet. Although President Reagan might intentionally fumble for a moment as he answered a question—Reagan once explained to a friend of mine that he wanted people to be able to see that he was thinking matters through, just as they would do if they were in his position—he never turned in a performance quite like Gov. Perry's debate lapse. The governor of Texas, as you will recall, lost his train of thought for 53 seconds, then blurted "Oops." Appearing normal differs from appearing addled. Mr. Perry's grade: C.

Test Three: Folks, this is serious.

Gravitas. Weight. Substance. Which of the GOP candidates demonstrates that he is equal to the moment? Who shows that in asking his fellow Republicans to place him in a line of succession that includes Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, he understands the fundamental solemnity of the undertaking?

The most important test, this is also the most subjective. After listening to speeches, debates and interviews for lo these many months, I have concluded that just two candidates pass: Messrs. Romney and Gingrich.

Mr. Romney has of course flipped and flopped. While he now refers to himself as "a conservative businessman," he claimed as recently as 2002 that he was instead a "moderate and . . . my views are progressive." Why hasn't he been laughed out of the race for this sort of thing? For one reason: When he speaks about the economy, the issue most on Americans' minds, he conveys depth of knowledge, the sense that he genuinely understands how to promote growth, and the flintiness to take the fight to President Obama.

Mr. Gingrich? Yes, I know. During the last few weeks the Republican establishment has formed a United Front Against Gingrich, insisting that the former House speaker is manic, childish, flighty and unstable. Perhaps on the evidence of Mr. Gingrich's more than three decades as a public figure the establishment has a case. On the evidence of his performance during this campaign, you couldn't prove it.

Mr. Gingrich has popped off a few times, but so have all the others. What has distinguished the former speaker has been his poise, his good humor, his intelligence and, particularly during the debates, his seriousness.

"Down one road," Mr. Gingrich said recently, describing the choice voters will face next year, "is a European . . . system in which politicians and bureaucrats define the future. Down the other road is a proud, solid reaffirmation of American exceptionalism." Vivid, memorable and true. Mr. Gingrich may yet put up a fight.

For gravitas, give Messrs. Romney and Gingrich both As.

The Most Improved Award.

When in 1953 John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater became freshman senators, Goldwater used to recall, Kennedy proved an awkward and hesitant speaker. Eight years later, Kennedy delivered an inaugural address that still rings. Speaking well is a skill. People can get better at it.

Not Messrs. Romney, Gingrich or Paul. At their ages, and with their experience, they are what they are. Mr. Perry's most recent debate performances represented a dramatic improvement over his catastrophic early appearances, however, and if Mr. Huntsman hasn't relaxed, exactly, he certainly has become less stiff.

Honorable mention here goes to Rick Santorum. Early in the race he seemed too tight, too intense and too often testy. In recent days, as he rose in the polls in Iowa, he seemed to gain the self-confidence he needed to relax, suddenly displaying poise and even, from time to time, an almost Reaganesque charm.

Keep your eye on Mr. Santorum. Before this is over, he might not even need to be graded on the curve.

Mr. Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and an editor of Ricochet.com.