Dramatis Personae

Donald Trump: President-Elect
Barack Obama: Outgoing President
John Roberts: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (And a good judge too!)
Bill Clinton: A former President
Hillary Clinton: A former Secretary of State
Al Gore: A former Vice-President
Chorus of Senators, Representatives, and Townspeople.

Act I. Scene: Washington D.C. A frigid winter day. The familiar landmarks seen in the background. TRUMP discovered standing at podium.

TRUMP: Well, well, at long last the fruits of my eighteen months’ labor are to be crowned with inestimable glory. At noon today, I shall finally achieve the august rank of President, defying all the many baleful prophecies set forth by the ignorant laymen and avowed antagonists of my singular quest. The prospect is Elysian–big league!

(Enter BARACK OBAMA, BILL and HILLARY CLINTON, AL GORE and Chorus. Chorus seen begging OBAMA in a furious state of agitation.)

OBAMA: There’s no getting out of it. The law is the law. At 12 o’ clock today, I relinquish control of the office to my elected successor.

(Chorus much dejected)

OBAMA (aside): Never mind my misgivings about his personality, or his total contempt for my liberal policy agenda; not to mention his hiring investigators to find evidence that I am not a legitimate president. I’m a constitutional lawyer–it’s built into my, er, constitution– and respect for the law, unpleasant as it may be, is paramount! (aloud, to TRUMP) Well look, Donald, I certainly wish you the best with your efforts to undo everything I have done. I have heard it said that you wish to, er, how does it go? “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp” is that right?

TRUMP: Yes, that sounds like something I would say.

OBAMA: I know we have had our differences over the years, but I do hope we can put those behind us, and work together in a spirit of mutual bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of the country.

TRUMP (aside): This fellow still thinks I listen to people. Sad! (aloud) Beautiful, very very beautiful! I’ll have my people look into it.

(Enter CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, looking harried and nervous)

TRUMP: What’s the matter with you?

OBAMA (checking his watch): The inauguration does not occur for another half-hour yet.

ROBERTS (frenzied): Stop–stop, both of you! There is a problem here.

TRUMP: Problem? What do you mean? Explain!

ROBERTS: Mr. Trump’s investigators have just completed their report on President Obama’s birth certificate and by extension, eligibility to hold office!

(OBAMA and TRUMP both much affected)

OBAMA: What!

TRUMP: I had forgotten all about that!

ROBERTS: Yes, well it seems that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate really was a forgery! They fabricated it using someone else’s birth certificate.

(OBAMA staggers in disbelief.)

TRUMP (Triumphantly): I knew it all along!

ROBERTS: But there’s more to it than that–it seems that the certificate they used was yours, Mr. Trump! They simply wrote “Hawaii” over “New York”.


ROBERTS: So, technically you’ve already served two terms–

OBAMA (clapping TRUMP on the back) –and a fine two terms they were, if I may say so myself.

ROBERTS: –and you can’t serve a third.

TRUMP: This is ridiculous–then who is going to be President?

ROBERTS: I’ve checked into that–the results of the last three elections are all invalid, and so we can’t use those. And the winner of the two before that is obviously ineligible to serve as well. As such, I have taken the liberty of convening the court to overturn the results of Bush v. Gore.

(All gasp. ROBERTS motions GORE to step forward.)

ROBERTS: I give you: the Next President of the United States!

ALL except TRUMP: Hurrah!

GORE: Fallacy somewhere, I fancy.

All except TRUMP exeunt in jubilation. TRUMP lowers his head dejectedly.


I only watched President Obama’s speech and part of Senator Ernst’s response; I didn’t see any of the other many response speeches various Republicans gave.

Overall, I thought Obama’s speech was good, and Ernst’s was pathetic. And I’m not even commenting on content here; since what politicians say frequently has hardly any bearing on what they do.  I am strictly reviewing them both in terms of their rhetorical skill here.

There was one thing both of them did that I found annoying, although it’s incredibly common in political speeches, so I guess it’s unfair of me to pick on these two for it.  But I’m going to.  Politics isn’t fair.

First, in Obama’s speech, he said:

It begins with our economy.  Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds.    She waited tables.  He worked construction…  “If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time… They sacrificed for each other.  And slowly, it paid off.

Now, I get what Obama’s trying to do here, rhetorically. He’s trying to take a macro point (“the economy was bad, but it is getting better”) and illustrate it using a micro-instance of two particular people.  He explicitly said this later on: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.”

This isn’t a bad technique.  In fact, it can be a very good technique.  But it’s overused.  I think Obama uses it almost every speech he gives.  And it’s getting to be just too much of a cliche.  This isn’t a criticism of the couple’s story, by the way; I’m happy for them.  But Obama’s use of telling these stories has crossed from being a good way of making things “relate-able” to being something the audience can start tuning out, because we’ve heard this before.

Watching the State of the Union, I felt like I’ve seen this speech before. Like it’s the same speech every year. And part of it is due to that same “John Smith did XYZ, and that’s what makes America great” style.  It gets to feel like it’s formulaic.

Then we have Ernst’s speech, in which she said early on:

You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.

But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.

Again, she’s going with the same technique, although she did a much worse job than Obama of explaining the relevance of this to her point. Even if she had though, it would really make for compelling imagery. As it was, she reminded me of Governor Bobby Jindal’s awful State of the Union response from a few years ago.
I’m sure this technique of telling these little stories to illustrate the point was useful, back in the days when politicians would give dry speeches full of numbers and such.  It made your speech stand out.  But now, it’s such a common thing that it’s gotten to be overused, and when something is overused, people don’t pay attention to it.  I suspect a drier, more statistics-filled speech would get more attention (not to mention being better suited to Ernst’s speaking style).

On one of the C-Spans the other night, they were showing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing”, which he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. You can see that speech on YouTube here.

It is pretty much the standard Republican fare  in terms of content, but Reagan was clearly a far more charismatic and persuasive speaker than the Republicans of today.  I hate his line about the hungry being on a diet–it’s that sort of thing that got the Republicans branded as greedy and heartless.  I don’t know how the Goldwater campaign reacted to this, but I’m assuming their position on poverty was not “it’s all in your imagination”.

But what is really interesting to me about it isn’t so much the content of the speech, but the style.  I don’t think people would stand for one long speech, and moreover one filled with a lot of references to statistics and numbers.  I don’t know how accurate the numbers he gives are, but it seems to me this speech contains a lot more precise statistics than a modern speech.

To be fair, I think Reagan was a major beneficiary of the style over substance approach to politics, and probably this speech was shallow by the standards of the time. But my hypothesis is that a shallow 1964 political speech has more substance than an in-depth 2014 political speech.

I remember in 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign did a 30 minute “infomercial” on the networks a week or so before the election.  It was well-made, but more like a documentary, with stock footage and interviews and such.  I think the PR people for Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have  dared to spend the whole  half-hour on one guy giving a talk–that’s dull television.

To be absolutely clear, so nobody misunderstands, I’m not saying Obama had less substance than Reagan did–I’m saying I suspect the audiences of 2008 have much shorter attention spans than the audiences of 1964. But even that may be false, I guess–after all, Goldwater lost, although probably that had more to do with his loose-cannon attitude than anything else.

CNN ran an article last week by Professor Gabriel J. Chin, explaining why Texas Senator Ted Cruz is eligible to be President.  For those of you who don’t know, there is some concern over whether or not he is a “natural born citizen”, because he was born in Canada. His mother was a U.S. citizen, but his father was a Cuban citizen.

So, in the opinion of this legal scholar, someone who was born in a foreign country still qualifies as a natural born citizen, even if born in another nation, as long as their mother was a citizen. We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating.

And so once again, I must ask the question: why didn’t the press mention this any of those times when people were alleging President Obama was ineligible because he had been born in Kenya? That would have been a much better way of counter-acting the so-called “birther” conspiracy than anything else.  Where Obama was born never even mattered from a legal perspective.

I don’t remember any CNN articles pointing this out when they talked about the conspiracy theory.  I mean, the conspiracy stuff is ridiculous enough as it is, but when you throw in the fact that even if it were all true, it is totally unimportant, that would make them look really bad. And yet, nobody seems to have bothered to consult any legal experts when the questions were raised about Obama.

I played the end of Fallout 3 last night.  For those of you who haven’t played it, it’s a video game set in a post-apocalyptic future in Washington D.C.  Awesome setting, absolutely dreadful writing.  There is exactly one well-written character in the game, and many of his lines are just quotes from actual U.S. Presidents.

The game has multiple endings, and the one I played last night has a massive, giant, gaping plot-hole in it.  I won’t give it away–it would take forever to explain anyway–but in brief, the player is forbidden from making the most logical choice simply because the game writers wanted to force a choice on the player.  There’s a perfectly logical ending that’s best for everyone, but the game won’t let you pick it. (In fairness, they did subsequently make an add-on that will let you choose this option, but  I don’t have it.)

I’ve talked in the past on here about good and bad video game writing.  I could talk about the writing in F3 is an example of the latter, and contrast with the brilliantly constructed plot in its sequel, Fallout: New VegasBut we all have bigger things to worry about, what with the election coming up.  And it is along those lines that forced choices in Washington D.C. set me thinking.

There are exactly two real choices for President this election, as there in almost all other elections of late.  Yes, there are third-party candidates, but they cannot win, and unlike Ross Perot in ’92, are unlikely to even attract enough votes to make the real candidates take notice.  Thus, as I have written before, the question is not “is this the best person for the job?”, but, “is this person better than this other person for the job?”

I support President Obama.  I think he is clearly better than Romney.  But is he the best person for the job?  I don’t know.  Theoretically, of course, the primary system would produce the two best people for the job, but an incumbent President who faces a primary challenge is virtually sure to lose, and so no Democrat had any reason to challenge Obama this time around.  And Mitt Romney, for his part, put on an absolute clinic on how to game the American electoral system.  He discovered that he could simply say one thing in the primaries, and the opposite in the general campaign, and face no real consequences for it.  His campaign even told everyone they were going to do that, and it still worked.

It is well-known that some voters blindly give their unwavering support to one party or the other, but the bigger issue is that even when people attempt to escape from the false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats, they still allow the parties to dictate the terms on which political decisions are made. That’s why the word “centrist” annoys me so much; it still permits the parties to set the agenda, from which the “centrists” only mix and match their  selections.

I sometimes think it would be better if the system worked as follows: the politicians were all effectively independents most of the time, but during election season could choose to align themselves with some party if they felt so inclined.  In other words, the candidate would nominate the party, rather than the party nominating the candidate who has best worked his way up in the party.  (If you think about it, why should low-ranking local officials need to have a party affiliation?) But maybe this has already been done and failed.  And it does have its drawbacks–most notably, there’s still the question of how to keep the number of candidates manageable.  Elections would all end in ties if every adult were easily able to run.  So, how do you decide who is qualified to be a national candidate without involving the party system?

Well, as I said, I think Obama is the better candidate, no question.  I don’t even really understand why so many Republicans are eager to vote for Romney, as he is apparently willing to throw away their platform to win a debate.  I don’t  actually know what he plans to do, though the best guess I can make is cutting spending and causing another recession.  So, by default, I have to support Obama for President.

“And I am right,

And you are right

          And all is right as right can be!”

–lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy.

Speaking of international affairs, the foreign policy speech the other night was surreal.  I say “speech” because it was in no way a “debate”.  Romney just echoed Obama.  Sort of pointless, really.  They might have at least had the decency to say beforehand “hey, we have no major disagreements on this, so let’s debate something else”.

Barry Goldwater famously derided “me-too” Republicans, meaning Republicans who went along with the Democrats with only slight deviations.  Mitt Romney has taken “me-too” Republicanism to an absurd extreme–at least in his words, if not in his deeds.  Either he is lying to the country in general about what his plans are, or else he is lying to the Republicans about being one of them.  I think there was a famous quote from some old politician about “fooling all of the people all of the time“.  Romney should check that out.

One problem with foreign policy debates is that foreign policy more than other matters requires secrecy.  You can’t go blabbing your plans all over the place, or rival nations and other entities will find out what you’re up to and react accordingly.  So, all they can really do is spout platitudes. “Peace is good”, “America must be strong” and so on. Still, spouting platitudes is what politicians excel at.

Obama’s line about horses and bayonets was a good one, but I sometimes think he’s over-thinking things.  While I agree that some of the military spending Romney is proposing is wasteful, it might be the easiest way of providing the economy with the Keynesian stimulus it needs, since few Republicans will vote against it.  It would be better to spend it on schools and such, but if the political landscape makes that impossible, there’s not much to be done.

I still think Obama is going to win this election, but there’s no question it’s been much closer than I ever expected.

Now then, as I was saying, charisma is what wins Presidential elections.  The first debate proved this point quite conclusively; as Mitt Romney won it in the opinion of almost everyone simply because he seemed more energetic than the President did.  Naturally, I was shocked that Obama did so poorly, but nonetheless the general principle that charisma wins elections was upheld.

Obama returned to form, though, in the second debate and I think won it despite Romney’s best efforts to weird him out by stealing his material.  Obama is more likeable than Romney in general; so I really cannot think what happened in the first debate.  I still believe that Obama will win because of his charm, and leave the awkward, sometimes nervous looking former Governor wondering what happened.

Of course, in the matter of what they proposed to do things were very different.  Mitt Romney threw almost all conservative ideas out, and simply mimicked Obama to a great extent.  He talked about how rich people  do not need help; the middle class does, and spoke fondly of the need for government regulations.  In the second debate, he came out in favor of affirmative action, albeit awkwardly.  In the upcoming foreign policy debate, he will probably quote Howard Zinn approvingly.

Romney won the first debate, but in so doing he essentially promised to be super moderate–to out-Obama Obama, as it were.  Maybe Romney will just say whatever he thinks is likely to be popular at any given moment.  Or maybe there is a conscious and deliberate plan whereby Romney talks like the consummate “centrist” and then governs like a supply-side Republican.  But either way, the Etch-A-Sketch strategy worked like a charm.

In a way, I think these debates have been the culmination of what I talked about in this post.  There are two Rockefeller Republicans in these debates; one of them simply happens to be a Democrat.  There are differences in their personal style, in their manner, and in degrees of Rockefeller Republicanism, but that is what they both are campaigning as.

Obama is (usually) more charismatic, and so he gets the advantage among swing voters.  Of the remaining votes, I assume that most will be cast based on party loyalty.  The Democrats will vote for Obama and hope he will adhere more closely to their platform, even though he will still face opposition in Congress.  The Republicans will vote Romney because they want Obama out, and will vote automatically for the GOP candidate whoever he happens to be.

It bears repeating that Romney is probably not actually a Rockefeller Republican; he just plays one on TV.  He played a much more socially conservative kind of Republican in the primaries, and then relied on the public’s short attention span to affect his metamorphosis.   Most likely, he is a George W. Bush Republican: almost all of his policies suggest that he supports the same tax cuts and military interventionism that the last Republican did.  But saying that won’t win him any allies.

I think that Obama, meanwhile, would like to be more liberal on government spending, raising taxes, and so on.  He probably wants to be an FDR Democrat on the economy, but the political terrain is such that he can’t find a way to do that.  For one thing, I think he is more interested in achieving bipartisanship than FDR was.

Ultimately, I think Obama wins this on personal appeal.  Romney, outside of one fluky debate, seems rather arrogant and condescending.  Even in the debate he “won”, he seemed arrogant with the way he talked over the moderator.

Intriguing title, huh?  I can’t take full credit for it though, it was inspired by Michael Tomasky’s piece in The Daily Beast criticizing Obama’s DNC speech:

This was the rhetorical equivalent, forgive the football metaphor, of running out the clock: Obama clearly thinks he’s ahead and just doesn’t need to make mistakes. But when football teams do that, it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose.

Well, teams that are competent can usually manage to do that.  It’s only teams with glaring weaknesses that fail at it. If you can’t run out the clock when you’re ahead, it means you’re not very good.  Tomasky continues:

 Unlike Clinton, Obama didn’t even mention [Medicaid] by name. Social Security and Medicare, yes, although even with those, he uttered mere vague sentences. But his not even mentioning Medicaid stunned me. Third down and 12, let’s run it up the middle, boys, take no chances.

Hey, Tomasky, teams that throw deep with a late lead tend to end up like this.  So maybe Obama knows what he’s doing.  Yes, I liked Clinton’s speech a lot too.  But there was no point in Obama repeating what Clinton had already said.  There was enough repetition in the convention speeches as it was.

As of right now, Obama leads Romney 48-45 in the Gallup poll.  To continue the football analogy, with a three point lead late in the game, he’d be crazy to try anything risky.


People are complaining about it, but I really enjoyed former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s DNC speech.  Why, if the politicians aren’t excited about what they’re doing, how can they expect the voters to be?  The only problem I have with her speech is that the enthusiasm it engendered will be long forgotten come election day.  She should have given it in early November.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s speech seems to have gotten a mixed reception.  I think his reputation as a good speaker is starting to work against him; he is expected to give a brilliant address every time he speaks.  Whereas Romney just has to prove he has actual human emotions for people to feel like he gave a good speech.

Ultimately, I really don’t think the conventions changed anything.  All anyone will remember from either of them will be Clint Eastwood, and he isn’t even running.

The New York Times has a bizarre fluff article about Paul Ryan’s fashion sense.  This isn’t really my area of expertise–he wears dark suits, like every other male politician–but the article does raise a lot of interesting questions about attractiveness and its relevance to politics.

I think that politicians in general are better looking now than they were before the advent of television and high-quality photographs.  You can’t go around looking like  Martin Van Buren and expect to be President anymore.

Martin Van Buren (Image via Wikipedia.)

Admittedly, not everyone in politics nowadays is pin-up material.  Actually, even people like Ryan, Obama, Palin and all the other supposedly attractive pols are just slightly above-average-looking people.  None of them would turn heads on the street.  But by the standards of the political arena, they look like movie stars.  I suspect this is because to be a major figure in politics, you usually have to be fairly old and spend a lot of time sitting around indoors.  This lifestyle isn’t conducive to getting on People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” list.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two consecutive Republican Vice-Presidential nominees have been relatively young and physically fit people.  They know how much looks matter in politics.  The NYT article referenced above makes it sound like only the Republicans do this, however.  Not true.  Why, the Democrats were perhaps the first beneficiaries of the attractiveness bias, in that it provided JFK the critical edge he needed in a close race against the haggard-looking Richard Nixon.

It’s not the same thing as the “charisma” that I write about so much–both Romney and Ryan are good-looking, but not at all charismatic–but it’s related.  And if you can’t get a charismatic politician to run for your side, getting a nice-looking one is probably the next best thing.

It’s been said that “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people”.  Well, now it’s coming to be Hollywood for slightly above-average looking people.  Eventually, political strategists will decide the best thing to do is put forth incredibly telegenic puppet candidates, and having the real nitty-gritty work of running the country done behind the scenes by people who look like Karl Rove or James Carville.  Or maybe that’s already going on.