Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom X: Obama's Blackjack Moment

By Robert A. George

The best advice a speechwriter might want to give Barack Obama before his historic address tonight is to tone it down, keep it down to earth, avoid the high-flying rhetoric and the aim-for-seats grandiloquence.

But then one considers the moment. In any event, the stakes would be high: this is, after all, a presidential nominating acceptance speech. On top of that, Barack Obama is the first African-American (literally!) to be a major party's nominee. Add to that, this is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's, "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Add to that, he is competing against his own phenomenal keynote address delivered four years ago -- the address that catapulted an obscure state senator onto the national (international?) stage. Add to that, he is following by a day, one of the best speeches of the premiere politician of the last generation. Add to that, he is following by two days the best speech his bitter rival in his own party has ever given. Add to that, over the last month, his opponent in the other party has managed to portray him as a vacuous "celebrity" who can't really lead the country because he is out of touch with "real people."

And what does Barack Obama do? Not only does he schedule the last day of his convention outside of the convention hall, he puts it in a football stadium that holds 75,000 people. This is the type of venue that a pope or a rock band usually rents. And just when one thinks that is impossible to, as the saying goes, take it to another level, reports begin to spill out that Obama is creating a "temple-like" stage with iconic Ionic (ironic?) pillars.

I'm not a poker player. Indeed, I'm suspicious of all legal (and illegal) gambling. But, there is one card game of which I am somewhat familiar. No pun intended, but it seems like Barack Obama may well be a fan of blackjack: rather than try to shy away from the "celebrity" tag -- as demonstrated by his selection of verbose, yet ultimately blue-collar background, Joe Biden as his vice president -- Obama is doubling-down on his bet. He wants to think big – and wants a stage big enough for the dreams he dares to share.

He is embracing the fact that, when given the chance to make his case to an audience, Barack Obama succeeds by selling himself and his vision. That was enough to sell several thousand copies of his "Dreams From My Father" well before he was nationally known. That was enough, four years ago, to capture a national convention in the way an unknown politician never previously had (remember, Ronald Reagan had been a fairly well-known actor and TV presence well before his 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater).

That has been enough to inspire millions on the campaign trail over 18 months.

That was, finally, enough to vanquish the most powerful political machine the Democratic Party has created in the last two decades.

But, will it be enough to extricate Obama out of the "celebrity" quicksand in which John McCain and the Republicans have managed to immerse him in the last several weeks?

No one will know until the moment it happens.

But, as a person who doesn't agree with Barack Obama ideologically, I must say that he is either the most arrogant politician to come along in quite some time -- or is the canniest and bravest. After all, given all that has been listed above, it is quite clear that, absent everything else, Barack Obama had a colossal task ahead of him. Yet, at each step, he has chosen to add more weight to the task. If he fails, he will fail spectacularly: There is no middle-ground here. Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden have set this up as well as any set of Democrats could. But the rest is in his hands, brain and mouth.

The difference between a good speech and a great speech is often found in how well the message matches the messenger. Obama’s 2004 convention speech was as perfect a marriage as one will find. Obama 2008 is a different man in a different place. America is a different country in different circumstances. Can he manage to: 1) reintroduce himself; 2) speak to the nation's economic anxiety; 3) convince an audience near and far that he will keep the nation secure; and 4) assure America that he is ready to be president (to borrow a phrase from the man who took the stage Wednesday night) -- even as he looks somewhat different from all previous American presidents.

That last part is the most difficult. It can't be said flippantly, as in the, "I don't look like the guys on the currency." Rather, it is said as simple fact. It is not to put race out there as either shield or sword. It is to just recognize fact; it is to show that Barack Obama is comfortable in his own skin.

Because, ultimately, that is what Americans want to see in their president -- a man who knows who he is and what he wants to do. That, in essence, is why American selected George W. Bush over Al Gore: It's not the "beer" test; it is the "self-assurance" test.

Is Barack Obama a self-assured visionary who knows where he wants to lead America -- and is he ready to explain it?

Let's find out.

Robert A. George, a former writer for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is an editorial writer for the New York Post

Unconventional Wisdom IX: How Obama Can Woo the Oldouts

By Dan Gerstein

From my perspective, Obama’s main challenge for his acceptance speech and for rest of the campaign is to win the trust of those swing voters who doubt that he is ready to be president and in particular that he is capable of delivering the change he is promising. This fairly sizable bloc of undecideds and leaners — what I call the Oldouts -- are eager for new leadership that will move the country in a new direction, but they are not yet sold that Obama has the strength to break through the partisan stalemate that has been gripping Washington for the Bush-Clinton years and to actually produce progress on jobs, energy, health care, education, climate change, etc. And there is a real danger that these independents and moderates from both parties will default to McCain just because he is a known quantity and a safe fall-back if Obama fails to show he is up to the job.

So with that challenge in mind, here are four things that Obama should do — and not do -- with his address Thursday night:

First, Obama has to focus on persuading the Oldouts that he has the strength as well as the judgment that's needed to change Washington and get the country moving again. To do this, Obama should go beyond telling his quintessentially American story and proving he is not the elitist alien creature he has been caricaturized to be — which is an essential first step -- and offer meaningful, specific evidence to back up his claims that he is and will be an effective change agent. The fact is, most swing voters don’t know the many different ways that Obama has challenged Democratic orthodoxy, taken tough stands and serious risks out of principle, or built bipartisan coalitions to get things done. Obama can go a long way towards winning the confidence of these voters by filling this knowledge deficit, which will in turn help him crack the strength gap that is holding him back in the polls.

Second, on a related note, Obama should look to throw a few political bones to those independent and Republican Oldouts who fear that Obama deep down is just another Kennedy liberal. One of the reasons Obama broke through the cliche clutter with his 2004 convention speech was his healing appeal for national unity and an end to the partisan food-fighting in Washington. Now that Obama must speak to a broader general election audience, he should remind swing voters why so many of them were drawn to him in the first place — and ideally give them a few new reasons to believe that he will be the President for all America that George Bush never could or would. For example, don’t just promise to appoint a Republican or two to your cabinet, announce that Chuck Hagel or another prominent GOPer will be part of your national security team. Or, conversely, embrace an idea that the public naturally associates with Republicans, much like Bill Clinton did with welfare reform, and pledge to work on a bipartisan basis to enact it.

Third, given that Obama’s primary audience has to be the unsold swing voters who will decide the election, he should bring his soaring rhetoric down to earth and be far more concrete in describing his vision, his ideas for solving the big problems Washington has punted on for years, and not least of all, how he is going to achieve the change he is promising. Just as they don’t know much about Obama’s character, most of the swing voters he needs to persuade know little about his plans for the country — a complaint we have been hearing with increasing frequency over the last couple months. This speech is a prime opportunity to introduce voters who have not really been engaged with the campaign to his innovative and realistic solutions — and to contrast them them with stale, Bushian agenda McCain is running on. This is not an argument for another yawn-inducing laundry list of policy proposals, but for highlighting a few big priority issues and a few standout ideas that will help you connect with voters who are eager for fresh, independent-minded thinking in Washington.

Fourth, Obama should not beat around the Bush in attacking McCain — especially on his supposed strength, national security. The Obama campaign knows that their best hope of cementing their structural advantage in this election cycle is to hang the Bush albatross around McCain, and frame the race as a clear choice, with the alternative being more of the same polarization, division, destructive economic and foreign policies that Bush brought us. Again, most voters don’t know how much John McCain has changed since he won their respect eight years ago, and this speech is prime opportunity to flesh out Hillary’s twins attack and make it stick. But there is another important strategic reason to whack the Mac — it’s a powerful way for Obama to communicate his toughness and show that he is willing to fight for what he believes in. The ideal place to start this offensive is on the war on terror — slam Bush and McCain for failing to capture Osama bin Laden, diverting our attention from al Qaeda by prosecuting a wasteful, unnecessary war in Iraq, and making us less safe in the process.

Gerstein, a former speechwriter and communications director for Senator Joe Lieberman, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters

Unconventional Wisdom VIII: Time for Barack to Go on the O-ffense

By Lamar Robertson

There seems to be little doubt that Barack Obama will deliver an excellent nomination speech, reinforcing his traditional themes of hope and change. What isn’t clear is whether or not he will use his remarks to go after John McCain directly. The conventional wisdom has long said the nominee should stay above the fray and leave the attacks to the running mate. In Boston, John Kerry followed that line of thinking and only said George Bush’s name two times. We all know how that turned out. In the era of Rove-style politics, the high-road is no longer a realistic path for Democratic nominees. For his speech to have the maximum political impact, Barack Obama will have to use this opportunity to define John McCain. In the process, he could define himself – as a fighter.

There are many benefits to taking on McCain in the speech.

The obvious is that it’s the easiest way to get Hillary’s wavering supporters into the fold. Recent polls suggest that if Obama can just earn the same percentage of Democratic voters as John Kerry did in 2004, he should be able to win handily, due to shifts in party identification. But at the onset of the convention, more than a quarter of Hillary supporters say they will vote for McCain. These voters may not like Obama, but the more they hear about John McCain and his near-universal support of George Bush’s agenda, the better Obama will sound. Hillary and President Clinton laid the groundwork for a mass homecoming in their remarks, but Obama will need to make the closing argument.

Another reason for Obama to go on offense is that he needs to make the Republicans play some defense. Obama’s beloved Chicago Bears made it to the Super Bowl by relying on their defense to score, but that strategy could only take them so far. The Obama camp should identify what it considers to be its best arguments against John McCain, tee them up in this speech and then drive them home every day until the election.

Perhaps the best reason for Obama to mix it up is to let voters see that he is not just a hope-monger, as he likes to joke, but a spirited fighter. This image would undermine the “celebrity” caricature of Obama the Republicans have spent millions promoting. And, getting back to those Hillary supporters, one of the big arguments against Obama was that he wasn’t tough enough to stand up to the Republican attack machine. Here’s a golden opportunity to prove them wrong and allay those fears.

So how does Barack Obama go on offense and score solid points with his remarks? Here are some specific ideas.

Embrace the crowd. One of the memes kicking around is that holding the speech at Invesco plays into McCain’s hands by providing more fodder for their “celebrity” line of attack. The Dems are locked into giving the speech at a 76,000 seat stadium, so rather than fret about whether the massive crowd has a downside, Obama should take a shot at the Republicans for their inability to draw large audiences near the opening of his remarks. Something along the lines of:

“Wow. What a crowd. You know, John McCain and his friends have taken to attacking us for drawing crowds that are too big. Can you believe that? Does that even make any sense? They just don’t get it. They don’t realize that these record crowds are not about me, they are about you and the millions like you who can’t believe what John McCain and George Bush have done to harm our economy, our environment and our standing in the world. You’ve had enough and aren’t going to put up with four more years of this.

“But that’s what they do. They tear others down, because they aren’t offering any ideas to lift this nation up and draw people to their side. Get this. I’m not making this up. The other side can’t even get a lot of their own Congressmen and Senators to show up at their convention, much less draw a crowd like this. Their campaign committee even sent out a memo advising elected officials to stay away for fear that they might be branded as Republicans. All I can say to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle is you’re welcome over here. We hope you and all Americans will join us in this effort to take our country back and get it moving in the right direction again.”

Educate on drilling. At this point, the only issue where the Republicans have a polling advantage over Democrats is on offshore drilling, but this edge is fueled by misperceptions, not the merits of the idea. Obama should tell Americans the truth about offshore drilling – that President Bush’s own energy department says it won’t lead to any meaningful increase in oil supplies for another decade, and even then it would only save pennies at the pump. In doing so, Obama can demonstrate that he is willing to talk straight with the American people, and trust them to make sound judgments based on the facts.

He could then pivot by saying that even though drilling is a bad idea, he’s willing to give a little bit on this front if it means passing a bipartisan energy bill this year that includes dramatic increases in investments in renewable energy. In the process, he should point out that McCain has refused to endorse the leading bipartisan energy bill because of his reluctance to raise taxes on his friends at Exxon Mobil and Hess who have contributed millions to his campaign. This would symbolize another way an Obama presidency would be a break from the status quo: he’s open to compromise and interested in getting stuff done to help the American people, and won’t be a slave to ideology.

Anticipate and inoculate. One big disadvantage facing Obama is that he has to speak before McCain. It’s pretty safe to say that the Republicans will try to rip the bark off of him in Minneapolis. To minimize the damage, mocking these attacks in advance could be an effective tool. Obama could deliver a riff like this:
“If there’s one thing you can say about the McCain/Bush brand of Republicanism is that they are predictable. We know that they are going to roll out a series of misrepresentations and some flat-out lies next week.

“They’re going to tell you that I’m going to raise your taxes. But they’re not going to tell you that I’m only going to raise your taxes if you make over $250,000, and that most Americans will pay lower taxes under my plan.
“They are going to tell you that John McCain’s ready to lead this country, and I’m not. But they aren’t going to tell you that on the on the biggest national security question of our day – whether or not to go to war in Iraq – I got it right, and he got it wrong.”
Mention the anniversary. . . not that one. Everyone is making a big deal out of the fact that Obama’s speech falls on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama would be better served by talking about the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. No event better encapsulates the failure of the Bush administration than the botched federal response to this historic tragedy. What makes Katrina particularly potent is how each candidate responded. Barack Obama immediately traveled to Houston to visit survivors with Bill and Hillary Clinton. A hit tip to the Clintons would surely be well received by her supporters and a nice reinforcement of the notion of party unity. Where was John McCain when Katrina struck? Eating birthday cake with George Bush. You can’t make this stuff up.

All housing jokes, all the time. Every single Democratic speaker should have at least one line taking a dig at John McCain for forgetting how many houses he owns, including Obama. Biden’s seven kitchen tables joke on Saturday was good, but the jokes will work even better if they emphasize the fact that he didn’t know how many houses, as opposed not just the fact that he owns so many. For example, when talking about Katrina, Obama could say, “The Department of Homeland Security didn’t even know thousands were stranded at the convention center, when the images were on TV. That’s like not even knowing how many houses you own. How could anybody be that out of touch?” The furious pushback from the McCain camp tells how damaging this gaffe can be.

The Greatest. One last bit of advice for Obama is that he should use the old State of the Union trick of singling out an audience member. With all the celebrities who will be in attendance, I know the Dems are probably worried about a replay of the Los Angeles debate where every cut away was to an actor or movie executive. But word on the street is that Muhammad Ali will be in Denver. Obama should single him out and say, “Ali is not only one of the greatest boxers of all time, but one of the chief political strategists of this campaign. People have been wondering why we weren’t throwing more punches in the summer. We were just doing the old Ali rope-a-dope. And you know what America, we’ve been conserving our energy long enough. It’s time to starting taking the fight to our opponent and show them what we’ve got, and take this country back. Are you with me?” People know Barack Obama can be a uniter. This Thursday, he will be well served by letting America see Barack Obama the fighter.

Robertson is a former speechwriter for Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom VII: Obama Should Just Be Himself

By Dan Gerstein

(NOTE: This was originally published as an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal.)

To listen to many of the antsy poll-following Democrats gathered here in Colorado, you might think you stumbled into a Dear Abby conference instead of a political convention. Just about everyone outside of the Obama true believers has a piece of advice for what the change candidate should change about his campaign to regain his mojo and avoid blowing what should be a sure thing.

Don't be so nuanced, the self-styled strategists say. Be more specific. Tell your story. Take the gloves off. Embrace your inner populist. Put Iraq back in play. And, oh yes, do it all in one pressure-packed speech if possible.

This fretting is understandable to some extent, and not just because we are the party that made the hand-wring its official handshake. By traditional standards Barack Obama is underperforming. And his "different-ness" has injected an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty into this contest.

But this is hardly cause for panic. Indeed, the Democrats who are telling Mr. Obama "I love you, you're perfect, now change" are underestimating the position of fundamental strength he is starting with, and the tremendous advantages his campaign will bring to bear this fall.

This is not just a matter of cyclical political dynamics that strongly favor Democrats (record-setting wrong track numbers, the damage George W. Bush has done to the Republican brand, a major intensity gap among the bases, etc.). Mr. Obama's campaign itself has a substantial structural lead -- the ruthlessly efficient money-raising and field-organizing machine that swamped the Clinton juggernaut is ready to do the same to Mr. McCain -- that current polls just don't account for and won't for some time.

More importantly, the doubting Democrats are misunderstanding the challenge Mr. Obama faces in closing the deal with those crucial voters who want a leader who can move the country in a new direction but are not yet sold on Mr. Obama as the man for that job.

In this, there is a faulty presumption that these winnable, undecided voters are rejecting Mr. Obama's message, and that he needs to say something different to sway them. The fact is, based on all the available polling and a lot of anecdotal evidence, these persuadables simply don't know Mr. Obama yet. In particular, they don't know the Mr. Obama that built such a potent and passionate coalition in the primaries beyond the antiwar left.

They know the Barack Obama who is for getting out of Iraq and who gives a snazzy speech, along with the Barack Obama who prayed with the crazy preacher and who did not wear a flag pin. But they don't know the Barack Obama who was booed by the nation's biggest teachers union for openly advocating taboo reform policies such as merit pay for teachers and charter schools. They don't know the Barack Obama who rejected the cheap gimmick of a national gas tax holiday and trusted the intelligence of voters to see it as such. They don't know the Barack Obama who risked alienating his antiwar base by supporting a compromise plan to reform the Bush warrantless wiretapping program.

They don't know the Barack Obama who in early 2007 worked on a bipartisan basis to pass one of the toughest ethics reform bills in a generation, as well as co-sponsoring legislation with Republican Dick Lugar in 2006 to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. And they certainly don't know the Barack Obama who went into a black church on Father's Day to bluntly chastise his strongest supporters and challenge them to take more responsibility for the children they bring into this world.

Which is to say they don't know what an independent-minded, orthodoxy-challenging, gutsy leader he can and will be, or that he has the strength as well as the judgment that's needed to bring the country together, deliver the new politics he's promising, and be the president for all of America that George W. Bush never could or would be.

That's why one of the few areas Mr. Obama has consistently trailed Mr. McCain is on the critical question of who is a stronger leader. Swing voters know Mr. McCain has a long-established record of taking tough stands, bucking his party and forging bipartisan coalitions (which is why he has been able to get away with the brazen flip-flops he made during the Republican primaries). We're lucky at this point if most of those same voters know Mr. Obama is not a Muslim.

Moreover, that's why I am convinced that Mr. Obama does not need to fundamentally change his message or strategy to win over the undecideds (though a few of the refinements being suggested would be helpful). He mostly just needs to be himself -- or to be more precise, to be more of himself. No reinvention, no repositioning -- just recount the tough stands and political risks he has already taken, relentlessly reinforce those points for the next three months, and ideally look for a few opportunities to walk the change-making walk as we near November.

Some Democrats mistakenly assume this must lead to a cynical, calculated move to the center or a coordinated series of Sister Souljah moments. I am not suggesting that Mr. Obama has to show he's a different kind of Democrat to pass the trust bar, as Bill Clinton did. Rather, I am arguing that because he does not have the kind of leadership record voters are used to in presidential candidates -- or the accumulated "country first" proof points Mr. McCain boasts -- he has to meet a higher burden during the campaign in proving that he is the different kind of politician he claims to be.

Sometimes that means going against the party grain, as Al Gore did by supporting the first Gulf War (he was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to do so). But it can just as easily mean standing on principle the other way, as Tim Kaine did when he stuck to his anti-death penalty convictions while running for governor in strongly pro-death-penalty Virginia.

This is exactly what wins over independents -- being independent. Just ask my mayor Mike Bloomberg, who continues to enjoy eye-popping approval numbers after seven years in one of the country's bluest bastions.

Now one could argue that the Obama campaign could have and should have started emphasizing these points earlier. But that quibble aside, now that the general election campaign is moving into high gear, Mr. Obama's acceptance speech tomorrow night is an ideal time to begin cracking the strength gap, by making the case that he can break the partisan stalemate in Washington and produce progress on the economy, energy, climate change, health care and other serious problems that are begging for national leadership.

And the ideal issue for Mr. Obama to focus on in the speech and beyond, as Mayor Bloomberg can attest, is education. No challenge is more consequential for our country than closing the achievement gap in our urban schools and raising the competitiveness of our workforce. And no special interest has done more to stand in the way of change in our public schools than the teachers unions that dominate Democratic politics.

The unions' chokehold on the party (and by extension the futures of millions of black and Hispanic children) is starting to loosen. One sign of that was the impressive number of progressive leaders who showed up to support Mr. Obama's change agenda and embrace an aggressively pro-innovation set of principles at a forum sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform (full disclosure: the group is a client of mine) here in Denver on Sunday. That group included three of the country's most influential African-American mayors, all rising stars in the party -- Adrian Fenty in Washington, Cory Booker in Newark, and Michael Nutter in Philadelphia.

Imagine what the party's first African-American presidential nominee could do to liberate millions of low-income children of color, not to mention elevate his standing as a change agent, simply by declaring that the era of unequal education is over in America. Mr. Obama doesn't have to, nor should he, attack or even mention the unions. Just do what he has already done (but louder): challenge his own party to change its policies to put children first, and embrace innovative solutions like longer school days and years, high-quality charter schools, and performance pay for teachers.

That's not just change you can believe in. That's change you can bank votes on.

Mr. Gerstein, a Democratic strategist and political commentator based in New York, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom VI: Some Advice for the Non-Keynoters

By Mark Katz

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…."

About to embark upon "the speech of his life," Julius Caesar (by way of the speechwriter otherwise known as Shakespeare) asked each audience member for both of their ears. Because he knew that in the mayhem of the public square, most people listen to a speech with one ear at most. This is the same challenge many speakers will face this week in Denver. So when my colleague Dan Gerstein asked me to provide some advice to those who will stand at the podium this week, I chose to address those non-keynoters who will have to earn the full attention of an audience otherwise engaged in gossip, chit-chat and power-schmoozing. Here are a few thoughts on how to deliver a speech that does not just become background noise.

1. Here's the challenge I often present to my clients: imagine someone has just heard your speech. What message would you like that person to repeat back to you – and then work backwards from there. In reality, this question replaces a “word count” with an idea count. And of course, that is the beauty of an actual idea -- it can be explored and expressed in any number of ways. This is where real ideas get separated from mere talking points. My advice: dig deeper into a fewer number of ideas. For my money, the most memorable speeches and presentations are those that pick a single compelling idea and execute the hell out of it.

2. This is a partisan event for a self-proclaimed post-partisan candidate. What better way to tow the party line than to say “no!” to the easy, familiar rhetoric of partisan politics? Instead, challenge the audience. Say things that will stop chatterers in mid-sentence to ask one another, "Did he just say what I thought he said?" Question an orthodoxy, concede something obvious, give the Republicans credit for an accomplishment or at least an honorable intention – all in the service of validating a larger point within a fuller context. When delivered in speech after speech, fierce partisanship is mind numbing. Gain the attention of the true believers by saying something that sends oxygen to the brain. More specifically....

3. What would Jon Stewart do? In an age where more and more people come home and watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, there is a growing understanding that humor is a form of communication that shapes debates in strategic arena. And what is the Pepsi Center this week if not a strategic arena? Almost any message can be translated into a humorous expression – and the best ones become sound bite that both make a point and makes the rounds. Twenty years ago, the late Ann Richards delivered some one-liners that many of us can still repeat today. Yes, they were highly partisan, but they only intended to insult an opponent, not the audience. Also, they were undeniably funny, making it easier to say things that would otherwise sound strident. Whether directed at yourself or others, humor is the best way to say the things that speak the subtext. Of course: all humor comes with this caveat: the right joke will get reprinted in the next issue of Newsweek, the wrong joke will get reprinted in your obituary. (Come to think of it, also try not to think about how things ultimately turned out for Julius Caesar.)

4. Without glancing above, please repeat these three ideas back to me.

Katz, who worked with President Clinton to produce his annual series of humor speeches to the Washington press corps, runs The Soundbite Institute in New York.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom V: How Should Mac Attack?

By Robin Masters

There are certain elements common to every convention speech. There’s the inspirational element: rally the troops, rally the nation. There’s the presidential element: look and act like someone who could actually inhabit the Oval Office. Then there’s the attack element: go after the other side.

It’s that third part that presents a problem for Senator John McCain. Everyone does it, and if they do it well, the attacks work without ever being characterized or remembered as attacks. We’ve all heard that JFK directed his speechwriters not to attack the Eisenhower administration in his inaugural address. But he had no such compunctions six months earlier at the Democratic Convention, when he called his opponent Richard Nixon “a man who has spoken or voted on every known side of every known issue,” referred to the Eisenhower administration as “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep,” and claimed that “our task is not merely one of itemizing Republican failures” before going on to do precisely that.

Ronald Reagan, a man remembered by most for his positive vision of "morning in America," did not hesitate at the 1980 convention to blame Democrats for the “unprecedented calamity which has befallen us,” accusing the Carter administration of “make-believe, self-deceit and—above all—transparent hypocrisy.”

These were not light jabs: they were full-throated offensives, launched in front of national television audiences. But no one remembers Presidents Kennedy and Reagan as, in today’s parlance, "negative" campaigners. They got away with it. The question is, can John McCain?

It will not be easy. McCain has much working against him. He is behind in the polls. His party is out of favor with the public. And he’s up against an opponent who is a genuine political phenomenon. It’s one thing when the Straight Talk Express is taking on Washington corruption, which everyone is against (or, at least, which everyone says they’re against). It’s another when he goes after a young, vigorous opponent who, like Kennedy and Reagan, somehow always manages to couch his own attacks in such a way that no one thinks they’re actually attacks.

So what must he do? He could try to emulate Kennedy, Reagan, and yes, Obama. He could try to hide his attacks in soaring rhetoric. He could try to make it seem like they’re not attacks at all.

He could, and he might. But he shouldn’t, for two reasons. First, it simply is not who John McCain is, and if he tries it, he risks losing the position in our political discourse that has thus far sustained his career on the national stage: that of the blunt truth-teller.

Second, this campaign is not and will not be about John McCain. It’s about Barack Obama. If Obama can convince the American people that he is ready for the White House, he will win. If his storyline is the one that succeeds, McCain cannot compete. The American people already know John McCain, and they like him well enough. There is no point in him trying to make them like him more. Rather, he needs to make sure they like Barack Obama less.

Can he do it? Can he—or anyone—attack Obama without being punished for it by the voters? McCain has on occasion displayed a dry sense of humor that can offer a perfect counterpoint to Obama’s high-flying oratory. He has shown a down-to-earth earnestness that is entirely different from Obama’s occasionally inflated sense of purpose. He may in fact be able to prick Obama’s balloon enough to bring him down to earth. It will not be easy. But it is crucial to his hopes for victory.

Masters is a former Bush Administration speechwriter

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom IV: Obama's Rally Risk

By Robin Masters

The news that Senator Barack Obama would be accepting the Democratic nomination for president not in Denver’s Pepsi Center, where the rest of the convention will be held, but instead at 76,000-seat Invesco Field, provoked relatively little comment in the political world. Obama is a talented, perhaps even gifted, public speaker, and he has had enormous success delivering inspiring stemwinders to huge, adoring crowds, including 200,000 in Berlin last month. Why not continue what his campaign can only see as a positive trend (while, the cynics point out, neatly sidestepping the possibility of booing or other such unpleasantness from disaffected Hillary supporters in the smaller auditorium)?

It could be a stroke of genius. But like many strokes of genius, it could also be very risky.

Too often lost in the hustle and bustle of the speechwriting process is the most important question every speechwriter must ask himself and his principal, more important than “how long should it be?”; more important than “who’s going to be there?”: even more important than “you want a draft by when?” The most important question is “what are we trying to accomplish with this speech?”

Sometimes the answer is obvious: “we need to ramp up grassroots enthusiasm in county x”, or “we need to help candidate y raise $100,000 by Friday.” Sometimes it is not. It is often far too easy to go with the flow, accept an invitation, make travel arrangements, and start writing a speech without ever really answering the fundamental question of why you’re doing it.

For Senator Obama’s team, it may have been very easy to decide to move his acceptance speech to a large outdoor stadium. He has depended on precisely these types of venues throughout his campaign, and it’s hard to deny that they’ve worked. His first national ads were built largely from footage taken at speaking events. His public persona—a successful persona thus far in the campaign—is based on his ability to inspire when speaking to mostly large audiences. So it seems natural, even a stroke of genius, to move his convention speech to such a venue. But in doing so, did he and his staff ask the fundamental question of what they want to accomplish, or did they simply act swiftly on what seems on the surface to be an undeniably clever idea?

A convention acceptance speech is traditionally something of a mash-up, a combination of many things to many people. It is supposed to rally the true believers, motivating them to continue their work for the candidate. But it also, usually for the first time, must present to the entire nation not just a candidate, but a credible Commander In Chief and Head of State—a President. In many ways, the convention speech is a candidate’s first presidential speech. It is his first speech to a national audience that goes far beyond ideological supporters.

Obama’s audience in Denver will be far larger than the 76,000 carefully selected fans cheering him in person. The eyes of the country—and the world—will be on him, many for the very first time … and they will not all belong to supporters.

Many of those people—most, according to the polls—want to give Obama a chance. They want to like him. They are disaffected with Republicans and the buzz surrounding Obama has reached them even if they have paid little or no attention to political news thus far this year. But they are not sure. He is young. He is inexperienced. They want to be convinced that he is, in fact, presidential. Simply appearing in the traditional convention hall environment—the environment from which we are used to seeing presidential campaigns launched—would have helped. Appearing in a rally atmosphere does not necessarily do so.

So is it a mistake? Not necessarily. It’s a risk, and like all risks it may pay off. Their calculated gamble may in fact be built on a simple calculus: inspirational, if not policy-heavy, speeches to large, cheering crowds have gotten us this far, so why fix it if it isn’t broken?

But it could also be a failure to recognize what he still has to accomplish: reach out beyond his already enthusiastic supporters and convince the country that he is not just an attractive candidate, but a President.

The question is, did the Obama team carefully consider what it is they want to accomplish with this speech when they made the decision to move it, and are they doing so today as the drafting process begins? If so, they have an excellent chance of success; their track record so far is stellar. But if not, if they are simply doing what they do because it is what they’ve always done before, then they may fall short. We don’t know yet what the result will be … but we will soon enough.

Masters is a former Bush Administration speechwriter

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom III: Requesting An Obama Re-Launch

By Mark Penn Name

More than the race speech, more than "dumb war," more than the 2004 convention breakout, this is the speech that Obama needs to be great. Expectations are mile high. He can meet them if he treats Denver not as a nomination or culmination, not as a moment in history that will live forever (though it will), but as a political re-launch. Be pragmatic and precise. Yes, lace the words with eloquence. Yes, stick to your winning themes. But up the ante, and avoid pitfalls.
  • Choose your targets carefully. Since this might be the only speech of yours that some Americans see from start to finish, there will be intense pressure from your staff to check every last policy box. Resist it. Talk about three or four—maximum five—meat and potato policies. Iraq and the war on terrorism; energy and the economy; and health care. This will show that you have priorities in order and aren't bent on spending billions on everything under the sun.
  • Wedge in just one big issue (national service?) that can communicate a larger point about the kind of cultural shift you want to bring about. Bush said, ad nauseum, he'd change the tone in Washington. Make clear that you can really make it happen.
  • Nobody said a convention has to be devoid of fresh policy prescriptions. Surprise us with a new idea—preferably one that doesn't cost billions of dollars. If your remarks are 99% grandiloquent rhetoric about bringing American together and moving America forward, you'll miss an opportunity.
  • Try to find a name for your governing philosophy. "Compassionate conservatism," however ultimately misleading, gave shape to Bush's ideology in 2000. Clinton, everyone knew, was a New Democrat. Reagan was a movement conservative. Where does liberalism end and post-partisan pragmatism begin? To prevent others from putting you in a box--which is easy to do given the thinness of your record--you need to take the opportunity to frame your ideology more precisely and proactively. "Change" isn't enough anymore. Claim a brand.
  • Beware of King-sized overreach. Of course you'll reference "I Have a Dream." Of course you'll talk about how far we've come as a country, how far we have yet to go. But any parallels between your speech, which is essentially political, and the 1963 speech that catalyzed and encapsulated the most important social movement of the second half of the 20th century, should be delicately and humbly drawn. Yes, yours is a historically momentous achievement—but leave that to others to say. We've heard enough about race for a while. And as Hillary might remind you, you're trying to become JFK or LBJ—not MLK.
  • Go easy on Bush. I know, this seems ridiculous. How can you pass up a 70 mph pitch down the middle of the plate? But you're a leader now. Leaders define themselves and their missions on their own terms, not in constant opposition to bogeymen. (Somebody needs to tell this to McCain.)
  • Be aggressive in whacking McCain—especially on the economy. This should be your sharpest point of contrast. At the same time, cite a couple of places where you agree with the man. Lots of Americans are disappointed that the high-tone, new-look campaign we were promised has been replaced by round after round of petty, partisan wrangling. From the start, your "turn the page" appeal came across as a genuine commitment to transcend some of that crap. Prove that you're not just paying it lip service.
  • Hillary Clinton is an impressive and effective politician, not an American hero. Be kind to her—but don't lay it on too thick. You're doing pretty well among white women already.
  • Make clear that you're a pragmatist. Bush was dogged by dogma. McCain is, too; prove that you're nimble enough to care more about results than rigid ideology. America's ready for that kind of leader.
  • Instead of simply retelling your thumbnail biography (which of course you'll have to do, in part), pull out a particularly telling moment. Too much of your personal history is told in broad brush. You're a storyteller. Get textured, specific and authentic.
  • Be as plain spoken as possible. At times, be conversational. And watch the preacher-like rhythms, which have always sounded a little false (to me, anyway). This will be a real challenge in a football stadium. You will be tempted to speak up and out to the crowd. But if the presentation is too big, it won't play well on camera—and risks reinforcing the single most effective character knock they make on you, that you're more style than substance. Some very simple sentences will go a very long way.
  • Take on the experience question directly. When John Kerry saluted and reported for duty it fell flat. It was an awkwardly staged photo-op transparently designed to cover over a perceived weakness. Don't pretend you are as experienced as McCain, don't pretend it doesn't matter. Tell Americans you understand their concerns and take them seriously. Then, explain why your life and work has prepared you for the challenge of leading the country through these times.
  • Make a joke or two. When you get up on stage, with the crowd practically worshipping at your feet, you need to remind them you're human—and simply repeating that you're human isn't good enough. Humor does it best.
  • Remember Kennedy. The American people may be down on their luck, but they don't want someone who'll tell them government can solve every problem. Call on all Americans to be part of something bigger, and don't gloss over sacrifice. You've become increasingly good at this over the course of your campaign. Drive it home.
  • Rephrase some of your old standbys. I know you're convinced that lots of people will be meeting you for the first time. Maybe so. But this campaign has been going on so long, and the candidates have been so exhaustively covered, that to a critical mass of people, "Yes We Can" and other mantras are, well, mantras. Boilerplate now feels like boilerplate, both to you and to the voters.
  • Don't go too long. If you pause for every applause break, say two words when one is all you need, waste 20 minutes patting backs and paying tribute to King—and if your intro and conclusions are nearly as long as your substance. Before you know it, you might wind up on stage for an hour and the story becomes: self-indulgent speechifier yearns to make history.
Penn Name is a former Capitol Hill speechwriter

Monday, August 18, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom II: First Step, Aim Low

By Robin Masters

Go to any speechwriter’s office and look at the bookshelf. What will you see? Possibly a copy of Strunk & White. Almost certainly Bartlett’s Popular Quotations. And, more likely than not, volumes full of collected speeches, with names like History’s Greatest Oratory and Words We Remember.

Speechwriters turn to those cherished tools often, whether for that elusive spark of inspiration, or—more likely—in moments of sheer desperation. They see them as representing the pinnacle of their craft, speeches that roll off the tongue, remain in the memory, and—in some cases—change the world.

They’re informative, reassuring, even fun to read. They’re also dangerous.

Right now the speechwriters for Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are working away at their convention speeches. They are writing for the biggest stages of their lives. If they’re like most speechwriters, they are being tempted by hundreds of pages of collected rhetoric sitting at their fingertips, waiting to be plumbed. But it’s a temptation they should avoid.

In fact, if they open those books, the first thing they might notice is that very few convention acceptance speeches are to be found. Maybe John. F Kennedy in 1960 laying out his vision of a New Frontier that “sums up not what I intend of offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Possibly Barry Goldwater in 1964 asserting that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Perhaps George H.W. Bush asking us in 1988 to read his lips: “No new taxes.”

But as a rule, acceptance speeches are relatively unlikely to enter the annals of oratorical immortality. Of course, in some ways it is an unfair exercise. The convention acceptance speech is a relatively recent innovation. Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s greatest speaker—and speechwriter—lived at a time when it was considered untoward for a nominee to accept his party’s nomination in person. Had he done so, it is hard to believe that his words would not have been memorable. As it was, it was not until 1932 that Franklin Roosevelt broke from what he called the “absurd traditions” of the past and spoke in his own favor, changing—as he did in so many other ways—the American political landscape forever.

So the universe of acceptance speeches is relatively small. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that the last 76 years of American political history—the years since that first 1932 acceptance speech—have offered up more than their share of moments of tremendous rhetorical power. We know them well. FDR exhorting us that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” JFK inspiring us to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ronald Reagan mourning with us for seven astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” Three of a multitude of powerful moments … but none from a convention speech.

Is there a lesson to be learned here for the McCain and Obama writing teams? Only that they need to consider exactly what an acceptance speech is supposed to be, and what it should accomplish. They may be tempted to shoot for the moon, but sometimes the moon just isn’t the right target. History-making oratory rarely makes an appearance in acceptance speeches, and success for Obama and McCain—and their writers—will not be defined as being listed in some future collection of great speeches.

So does that mean that these speeches—speeches that will no doubt be promoted and analyzed to within an inch of their lives—don’t in fact matter at all? Can the speechwriters for the McCain and Obama campaigns throw together a few canned clich├ęs and knock off for a late-August vacation?

Unfortunately for them, they cannot. Acceptance speeches may not tend to offer history-defining moments, but they occupy a unique and important place in the modern American political tradition ... and they are not easy to write. They must be campaign speeches designed to invigorate like-minded supporters and introductions that must appeal to the wider electorate. They must encompass both political attacks and positive images of the future. They must be about policy and about votes. They are mishmashes and tightropes, and the pitfalls are as real as the opportunities.

In fact, by comparison, a high-minded speech—like an inaugural address—is a far easier one to write. A new president striding forward amid celebration, pomp, and circumstance and speaking for the first time to a nation that is usually willing, at least for a little while, to set aside its differences, is a speechwriter’s dream. Inaugurals are tailor-made for the soaring rhetoric that every writer puts to page with a smile on his face and the anticipation of reading fawning reviews in the days to follow.

But to get there, that speechwriter needs the convention speech first. And ultimately, he will not know if he was successful until Election Day. The analysts will have their say. The polls will move up and down. But the acceptance speech does not exist in isolation. It is like a late-season baseball game against a division rival. It alone cannot guarantee a championship weeks or months down the road. But a victory can add to or change a team’s momentum, give a pitcher or a batter crucial confidence, or even provide that one extra win that makes the difference in a tight race to make the postseason.

That is the approach the McCain and Obama speechwriters should be taking. They need momentum and confidence and a little extra edge. They need an enthusiastic base and a willing-to-listen middle. They need clear lines of attack against their opponents and policy pronouncements that sound like promises but aren’t. Most of all, they need to set aside the greatest speech compilations. The time for poetry is January 20. The time for a careful, grind-it-out, measure-every-word juggling act is now.

Masters is a former Bush Administration speechwriter

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gotham BloGG Launches Series Previewing Presidential Convention Speeches With Top Political Speechwriters

“Unconventional Wisdom” kicks off with advice for Obama from author and former Clinton Administration scribe Michael Cohen

With the Democratic and Republican party conventions right around the corner, we are launching a new series on the Gotham BloGG today called “Unconventional Wisdom,” which will provide rare inside insights from seasoned speechwriters from both sides of the aisle into what the candidates should and will say in their high-stakes acceptance speeches.

The series kicks off with a preview of Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s historic address in Denver in two weeks from Gotham team member Michael Cohen. A former Clinton Administration scribe, Cohen is the author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the Twentieth Century and How They Shaped Modern America, which was released in July.

Gotham President Dan Gerstein, a veteran political speechwriter and commentator, said the inspiration for the blog series came in part from Obama’s ongoing call for change.

“Much as we do every four years, we will soon be treated to growing piles of punditry about what the two presidential candidates need to say and accomplish with their acceptance speeches. And as usual, almost all of this authoritative-sounding analysis will likely come from commentators and strategists who have never written a political speech,” Gerstein explained.

“We thought it might be refreshing to hear from a group of highly articulate people who have some meaningful experience and expertise in this area — and who are thus uniquely positioned to inform the public debate and enlighten viewers about the defining speeches Barack Obama and John McCain will be delivering in a few weeks.”

With that in mind, Gerstein said, the Gotham BloGG will temporarily be turned into a platform for top Democratic and Republic speechwriters to preview and predict what’s to come in the big addresses in Denver and the Twin Cities.

The Unconventional Wisdom series will include bylined commentaries from Gotham team members and other political speechwriters, as well a few unsigned posts from scribes who wish to remain anonymous for professional reasons, and run through the end of the Republican convention on September 4th.

“We hope that people who are interested in the campaign and the conventions can benefit a little from our accumulated knowledge and experience,” Gerstein said. “And who knows, maybe a few pundits will see the writing on our wall and be the wiser for it.”

Gotham Ghostwriters is New York City's only world-class, full-service writing firm. We specialize in the cultivation and amplification of thought leadership for clients who aspire to stand out and spur change.

Unconventional Wisdom I: For Obama, it’s about change you are comfortable with

By Michael Cohen

In his rather short political career Barack Obama has given a career’s worth of high pressure speeches; the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, his “race speech” in Philadelphia. But those were relative child’s play compared to the address Obama will be delivering two weeks from today at Invesco Field in Denver.

Since Franklin Roosevelt became the first presidential candidate to accept his party’s nomination in person at a national convention, acceptance speeches have taken on extraordinary significance in presidential campaigns. They have become the single most effective tool for candidates to get their key campaign themes across to the American people and provide a positive personal image for the electorate. At the very least, it is the most viewed, read and heard campaign speech of an entire modern presidential campaign.

But for Obama the stakes for his speech may be higher than any convention address since Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination in 1992 or when Ronald Reagan accepted his party’s nod in 1980.

As many commentators have noted, the 2008 race for the White House is increasingly shaping up to be an election about Barack Obama. This is not to suggest that John McCain is a sideshow; but in a year when Democrats have huge structural advantages, when the desire for change among the American people is overwhelming and yet the party’s standard bearer remains relatively unknown to a large segment of the population, Obama’s ability to convince skeptical Americans that he can be trusted with the nation’s highest job will be critical. For Obama’s campaign, it’s as much as about change you are comfortable with as it is change you can believe in.

Of course, based on his rhetorical reputation, the pressure and the expectations could not be higher for Obama – many voters who have never seen him speak will be expecting Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy all rolled into one oratorical rock star. Throw in the fact that Obama will be speaking before 70,000 partisans in an outdoor football stadium on the 45th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech . . . well let’s just say, I don’t envy Obama’s speechwriter.

So what should Obama do in his acceptance speech? Well, as the old saying goes, “you gotta dance with the girl who brung you.” Obama should stick with many of the same campaign themes that won him the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton. He needs to stay away from the minutiae of ten-point policy plans and stick, instead to his vision for America; providing the American people with a clear sense of what an Obama presidency will entail.

But above all, Obama needs to inspire and energize voters, in much the same way he did back in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other primary and caucus states. Obama’s rise to power did not come from the fact that the opposed the Iraq War or he had a better health care plan than his Democratic opponents; it came from his call for political change and the aspirational nature of his candidacy.

Just as JFK did nearly 50 years ago with his New Frontier, Obama must cast the 2008 election as one between the forces of change and those that represent the status quo. With 80 percent of the country believing America is on the wrong track, this should be the easiest part of Obama’s speech.

But beyond change, a key element of Obama’s appeal is hope; and the sense that his election represents not only a new style of politics, but also a return to treasured American values after the wayward drift of the Bush years. This is a theme that needs to front and center and Obama would be wise look back not to a past Democratic candidate for inspiration, but instead a past Republican President: Ronald Reagan and his call in 1980 to “renew the American spirit and sense of purpose.”

That was the message that Barack Obama was getting at in January after he won the Iowa Democratic caucus as he sought to his cast victory in seminal terms:
Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope.

. . . Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.

Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.

Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.

. . . We are not a collection of red states and blue states. We are the United States of America. And in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again.
Just as Ronald Reagan in 1980 called for a national crusade that would “make America great again,” Obama must sound a clarion call for “America to believe again;” belief in the potential of America to again do great things, whether it’s ending the war in Iraq, fixing the economy or dealing with the challenge of climate change. Obama would be wise to wrap his political agenda in this sort of affirmative vision of change. While some might consider such themes Pollyannaish, it is indeed this sort of rhetorical approach that has come to define the most memorable and effective campaign addresses.

It’s a tall order for any speech, but considering Obama’s rhetorical efforts to date, we know that he certainly has it in him. His success at meeting this challenge in Denver will go a long way toward determining whether he will be America’s 44th President.

Cohen, a former Clinton Administration speechwriter, is the author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the Twentieth Century and How They Shaped Modern America