How to Give a Convention Speech that Will Get You Re-Elected

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A look at 40 years of renomination acceptance speech dos and don'ts -- and what Obama can learn from Clinton, Reagan, and even George W. Bush.

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Clinton, with his running mate Al Gore, after delivering a widely praised renomination speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1996. (Reuters)

Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte will be a "Mountaintop Moment," one seeming to fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King's dreams in no small measure: An African-American president will accept his party's renomination in a majority-white city in the South led by an African-American mayor. Yet the president's focus cannot be on the history books of the future. He must instead excite his base and win over undecideds during his best chance to speak to the nation uninterrupted between now and November 6th.

Given the stakes for Obama, it is surprising that most of the pre-convention attention has been on the speech to be given by former president Bill Clinton. While surrogates may sway votes for nominees relatively new to the national stage, it's ultimately up to an incumbent president to make a compelling closing argument for his re-election. So while Clinton's 2012 speech may be of limited value, his 1996 convention remarks -- when Clinton accepted renomination -- offer Obama an important guide for how a sitting commander-in-chief can effectively plead his own political case.

Over the past four decades, Clinton and five other incumbent presidents have accepted the nomination of their respective parties for a second term. Four (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush) went on to victory; two (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) to defeat. Here's what Obama can learn from Clinton, Clinton's fellow two-term winners, and the losers:

* Pick a serviceable metaphor and stick with it. Remember Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century"? Amazingly, 16 years later, many Americans still recall it, thanks to the fact that Clinton promised to deliver said structure linking the country to the new century and "to the future" 26 times in his '96 acceptance speech. The seemingly non-partisan metaphor actually packs a solid (albeit subtle) punch in favor of the traditional "pro-government" Democratic view. Bridges are a paradigmatic public work, something most taxpayers would surely deem indispensable. And the repetition gives the metaphor a life of its own, so that by the speech's end it feels as though the "bridge" that Clinton argues only he -- and not his opponent Bob Dole -- can deliver is literally necessary if Americans are to cross over from one millennium to the next.

The second-place medal in the metaphor category goes to Reagan's repeated invocation of flame and torch images in 1984, which worked well in a year when the U.S. hosted the Olympics and the Statute of Liberty lamp was refurbished. Conversely, Carter's 1980 dire image of the "dream world" of Reagan's promises causing Americans to "wake up to a nightmare" may have seemed too over-the-top for voters to believe. Same with Bush 41's suggestion that all would be right with America if voters would simply "roll ... away the roadblock" posed by congressional Democrats.

* KISS (Keep It Simple and Secondary) when it comes to foreign policy. As tempting as it might be for Obama to lead with the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, Bush's 1992 address shows why the urge should be resisted: Once you start talking about foreign policy -- be it the take-down of a terrorist or the end of the Cold War -- it's hard to stop. And in a time of economic insecurity, voters are more focused on their financial future than a president's triumphs abroad. Of course, the dividing line between domestic and international affairs is easily blurred, but incumbents forget the "all politics is local" admonition at their peril. H.W. Bush began his speech by acknowledging, "I know that Americans have many questions about our economy ... I'll answer them tonight." Inexplicably, he then immediately turned to and dwelled on foreign affairs. In retrospect, it's clear he should have said, "I'll address your economic concerns ... NOW."

Reagan and Clinton again set the standard, each starting with the home front before moving to matters abroad. Both then put their foreign policy successes in straightforward and numerical terms: "Since January 20th, 1981, not one inch of soil has fallen to the Communists" (Reagan); "[t]onight there is not a single Russian nuclear missile pointed at an American child" (Clinton). Their points are pointed yet digestible, even for voters who don't easily see a connection between their daily lives and foreign lands.

* Talk up your vice president. A nominee's first major decision is the tapping of a running mate. Four years later, a self-assessment of the pick can be tricky, particularly -- as in the case of Nixon (Spiro Agnew) or H.W. Bush (Dan Quayle) -- if the choice proves controversial. But it's not clear what a president gains by acknowledging disdain for his vice president, as Bush did in 1992: "My job has been made easier by a leader who's taken a lot of unfair criticism with grace and humor." Two decades earlier, Nixon's nod to the critics is less direct and his rejection of them more emphatic: "I thought [Agnew] was the best man for the job four years ago. I think he is the best man for the job today. And I am not going to change my mind tomorrow." Both Nixon and Bush I ignore the general rule (and safer choice) which is to pay one's number two the ultimate compliment and extol the vice president as "the best" (Carter on Walter Mondale and Clinton on Al Gore) or "finest" (Reagan on Bush I) or, at a minimum, "superb" (Bush II on Dick Cheney).

* Don't be defensive. A president's urge to address his detractors should be resisted even more when the barbs are aimed directly at him and not just his running mate. Not surprisingly, the losers-to-be are harder on themselves than the victors. Maybe circumstances (be it surging inflation and the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980 or a soft economy in 1992) left Carter and Bush little choice, but the extent of their admissions seems counterproductive. Said Carter: "I'm wiser than I was 4 years ago ... Some have criticized the Camp David accords and they've criticized some delays in the implementation of the Middle East peace treaty ... I don't claim that every decision we have made has been right or popular ... We've made mistakes, and we've learned from them."

Bush père went further with his mea culpa: "I know that Americans have many questions ... even questions about me ... Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. Two years ago, I made a bad call on the Democrats' tax increase ... Well, it was a mistake to go along with the Democratic tax increase, and I admit it." With the electorate's attention span even shorter today, there seems to be scant utility to devoting precious minutes apologizing for first term missteps rather than outlining a compelling second term agenda.

* Name thy enemy without name-calling. After considering how to assess one's running mate and oneself, the other vital question is how to describe and evaluate one's opponent. The delicate trick for an incumbent -- who, as the president of the United States, stands before his audience as the world's most powerful person -- is to tear down the competition with a dignified touch. Again, Bush's '92 speech offers an object lesson in what not to do, as he took jabs at Clinton that came across as petty rather than persuasive. Bush poked fun at Clinton for his appearance in jogging shorts and for his infamous "smoked pot but didn't inhale" claim, then topped it off by questioning his courage: "I bit the bullet [and fought in war], and he bit his nails." Rather than reducing Clinton's stature, it was President Bush who wound up seeming small. Carter, too, missed the mark, but in a different way. He never mentioned his opponent by name, save for a reference to the Reagan-Kemp-Roth tax plan that surely registered with few viewers. Instead, most of his opprobrium was aimed at a generic group of "new Republican leaders". Particularly today, with close presidential elections determined by independents accustomed to voting for candidates from both majority parties, an incumbent should name his opponent and their policy differences without resorting to off-putting name-calling.

* Don't forget the new voters. It's surprising that no incumbent since Nixon has tried to make a targeted impression on the most impressionable presidential voters: those too young to vote four years before. Nixon's pitch -- "I pledge to you, all of the new voters in America ... that I will do everything I can over these next four years to make your support be one that you can be proud of ... Years from now I want you to look back and be able to say that your first vote was one of the best votes you ever cast in your life" -- was no doubt spurred by the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. But even with only four years' worth of newly eligible voters at stake rather than the eight Nixon faced in 1972, an explicit overture to all first-time voters (thanks to age or recent citizenship) could make the difference in a close election.

So, of the six renomination acceptance speeches given since 1972, which ones provide the best overall model for Obama in style and approach, if not substance? Those by Clinton and Reagan have much to recommend them. Yet you can make a strong argument that W's is the (surprise) rhetorical winner. His 2004 convention address gave a nod to his critics but then used humor to dismiss them. (Example: "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.'"). He took on his opponent (John Kerry) in a direct, organized, and substantive way; got to domestic affairs quickly; delivered a line in Spanish; and even put in a plug for his campaign website. In the midst of a divisive foreign war and an economy in only early-stage recovery, Bush's convention oratory likely played a role in his razor-thin win over a candidate from Massachusetts. Obama is also facing a Bay State politician, and his hopes for similar electoral success may well rest on his ability to do in Charlotte what he did in Denver and, before that, Boston: knock his convention speech out of the park.

And while the history books are of no moment in the heat of a political race, an incumbent should never forget time's looming test. For if a president's actions in office or on the campaign trail put the lie to his renomination rhetoric, the words will live on in infamy, just as a claim made four decades ago does today. The statement: "It has become fashionable in recent years to point up what is wrong with what is called the American system. The critics contend that it is so unfair, so corrupt, so unjust, that we should tear it down and substitute something else in its place. I totally disagree.'" The speaker: Richard Nixon. The irony: As he uttered those words in August 1972, his supporters were, as Watergate would reveal, engaging in conduct "so unfair, so corrupt, so unjust" that the next Congress essentially tore down America's campaign finance regulatory regime and substituted something else very different -- the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act -- in its place.

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Hampton Dellinger is a former state deputy attorney general for North Carolina, now in private practice. In 2008 he sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. He recently served as NBC's legal analyst for the John Edwards trial.

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