The RNC Is a Master Class in Mediocre Speechwriting
By holding Republican speakers to a lower standard, we incentivize Democrats to engage in a race to the bottom
The GOP gets graded on a curve. That, more than any set of remarks or Hatch Act violations, is the most important dynamic at play so far during this year’s Republican National Convention.
As a speechwriter and as a Democrat, I’ve seen GOP grade inflation at play most clearly when it comes to the speeches. The problem is not that every set of remarks has been terrible. It’s that perfectly adequate sets of remarks have been lauded as revelatory. On Monday, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina delivered a 1,500-word address in which he recounted his life story, attacked his opponents on the left, told us our best days lie ahead, and used alliteration (“My family went from cotton to Congress”) to highlight a key point. On Tuesday, Melania Trump offered her condolences to the families of the Americans who lost their lives to Covid-19 and recognized the “harsh reality” of America’s racist history. And on Wednesday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway praised the president’s empathy for those struggling with things like addiction and unemployment.
There’s No Coming Back From the Norm-Breaking at the RNC
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None of it was bad writing. But none of it was great writing, either. Instead, the remarks were perfectly fine, the kind of thing you’d expect from the third-best student in a college seminar or a third-tier Democratic presidential candidate. Praising a speaker for expressing sympathy during a pandemic or telling us the future is bright is like praising a singer for including verses and choruses in a song. This stuff is supposed to come standard.
You just wouldn’t know that if you followed many of the reviewers of political theater—the pundits, editors, and analysts who still, to the best of their abilities, serve as gatekeepers into the inner circle of D.C.’s elite. “Hopefulness and optimism virtually poured from Scott’s words,” gushed CNN’s Chris Cillizza, the nation’s most reliable barometer of conventional wisdom. “Melania Trump embraced the role of stateswoman on Tuesday,” wrote Politico’s Tim Alberta. Perhaps most remarkable was the CNN headline that began, “Tim Scott Delivers Powerful Speech,” the kind of opinion usually reserved for, well, opinion.
(By way of contrast, in 2004, when a young state senator from Illinois gave one of most the effective keynotes in America history, CNN went with “Obama looks to own past in convention speech.”)
I understand the temptation to give competent Republican speakers extra credit. After all, this is a convention where one speaker was pulled at the last minute for promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and where Kimberly Guilfoyle appeared to be summoning a demon on the podium. Any GOP official who is inoffensive, coherent, and vaguely normal looks positively Lincolnesque by comparison.
There are other reasons the traditional political press might be eager to give Republicans a pass. In a job that depends on access, a flattering word about a convention speech could be seen as harmless source-greasing. Pundits also tend to be college-educated and urban-dwelling; rather than risk coming across as condescending to a GOP party whose base is often neither of those things, they may substitute their own assessment with the judgment of an imagined “real America.” The result is that each party is appraised not in relation to the other but in relation to itself. Just as theater critics would review a Broadway spectacular quite differently from a community playhouse production, pundits hold the Democrats to a far higher standard than they do the Republicans.
Any GOP official who is inoffensive, coherent, and vaguely normal looks positively Lincolnesque.
That’s a serious problem and not only because it might offend a writer’s sensibilities. The double standard among political gatekeepers that begins with judging words inevitably extends to actions. In the short run, grade inflation may help the GOP. But in the long run, it hurts both parties and hurts America as well.
For one thing, by holding Republicans to a lower standard, pundits incentivize Democrats to engage in a race to the bottom. Take the Hatch Act, the law that — in theory anyway — prevents the president from using the White House, a naturalization ceremony, or a pardon as a political prop during his campaign. When violations are dismissed as political spectacle, which they were when Trump committed them this week, it sends a signal to both parties that a new norm has been created in American politics. The bar is lowered, for both parties, for good.
Grade inflation also disincentivizes Republican politicians who might otherwise be compelled to correct the worst abuses of the Trump administration. Imagine if Scott had not just been praised for his storytelling but really taken to task for neglecting to mention the pandemic or misleading listeners about the effects of the 2017 tax bill. Scott, who clearly has national ambitions, might then be inclined to address the pandemic or be more honest with voters in his next speech. Instead, it’s in his interest to keep doing what’s working — even if it’s the same mix of willful ignorance and alternative facts that got us into this mess in the first place.
Which brings me to a final danger of grade inflation: In a rush to praise Republicans who are stylistically different from Trump, pundits and editors risk overlooking the degree to which they are substantively the same. Yes, there are visions of a post-Trump future: John Kasich and Jeff Flake have endorsed Joe Biden; Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan are wildly popular GOP governors in deep-blue Massachusetts and Maryland, respectively. But if the 2020 RNC has demonstrated one thing, it’s how completely Trumpism — both the man and all he represents — now dominates the Republican Party.
To anoint someone as the voice of a new generation because they can deliver a B+ speech would not just be an example of what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It would be fundamentally dishonest to the American people, in particular the voters whom gatekeepers ultimately ought to serve.
At their best, political analysts can help Americans connect the dots between what happens in Washington and what happens in their lives. They can inform all voters — not only those of us with the time and temperament to become political junkies. But in order to do that, they need to referee a fair fight; that means not treating one of the political parties with kid gloves.