* 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.