Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Sunday, March 18, 2012
There is no “power to persuade” for a US president. That is the conclusion in Ezra Klein’s fascinating recent New Yorker article, drawing heavily upon data-heavy research by George Edwards of Texas A and M University.
It can come as a bit of a shock. You read it in all the textbooks; a key element in the arsenal of an American president is his power to persuade. He has a bully pulpit second to none, can command television audiences most candidates barely dream about and has probably come to the presidency in the first place because of his powers of oratorical persuasiveness. Every successful president from Theodore Roosevelt, through his distant cousin Franklin, via JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to Barack Obama, have been hailed as great speakers, articulators of their vision and persuaders of the American people.
Well, not quite. Klein describes how George Edwards, no specialist in presidential rhetoric, was nonetheless suspicious at the lack of specific evidence to back up the oft repeated claim that presidents persuade. Asked to organise a symposium on the issue, he undertook some research of his won, focusing on the “Great Communicator” himself, Ronald Reagan. Using the polling data, he discovered that Reagan consistently failed to convince the public of the need for programmes he himself favoured, whilst public support for programmes he opposed in fact increased. Not much persuasion going on there then. Only after he left office did Reagan’s reputation as the great persuader start to take hold, in defiance of the evidence.
Edwards eventually extended his research, which is admirably reviewed by Klein, and saw that Reagan was not alone. Bill Clinton, his modern rival in presidential communications, fared no better in actually persuading the American public, for all his skills as a politician. And the power to persuade doesn’t just fail to produce a resonance from the American public. In Congress, too, a president’s speechifying can harden the attitudes of the opposing party, as presidents come to be seen more and more as simply party leaders who need to be opposed.
Klein takes these arguments and looks at what it means for the presidential system of government, as well as considering what it is that really effects a president’s standing. On the former, the hardening party stances in Congress seem to effectively be ensuring a more parliamentary system, but one which is inhibited from much forward motion by the checks of separately elected power sources. Whether this is a new development is one that he also considers, looking back, for example, to FDR’s difficult mid-terms. On the issue of what effects a president’s standing – well, it may not be quite “the economy, stupid”, but it is certainly the general level of well-being that can sometimes be ersonified in the image of the man governing at the time.
In the end, presidents may not be able to persuade very much, but that is surely not going to precipitate a rush to emulate the famously silent Calvin Coolidge and stop them continuing to exercise their vocal chords on their own behalf for the duration of their presidency. After all, the one thing worse than speaking is not speaking. Even if it isn’t very persuasive.
Thursday, March 01, 2012
A fairly recent arrival on the media scene, but a man who pushed forward the boundaries of new media, Breitbart was a controversial figure, always determined to stir things up from his place on the right. He called Ted Kennedy a 'special pile of human excrement' when news of Kennedy's death broke, fitted up a decent, black public servant in Georgia as a racist (she wasn't - he had selectively edited the video recording of a question and answer session she was involved in and released it on his blog) and used all manner of invective to engage with his many critics. If he has had any impact at all beyond the short term, it is probably in further poisoning the waters of public discourse, especially that conducted over social media. He fitted in well with the 'Fox World' of political broadcasting.
'Wired' has a sympathetic obit here, and an earlier profile gives a measure of the man, while it's left to Andrew Sullivan, no fan of Breitbart's views, to provide perspective here. It is, finally, a measure of Mitt Romney's political integrity that this candidate for whom Breitbart is likely to have held nothing but contempt (his websites regularly ran the accusation that Romney was not a 'proper conservative') still weeps crocodile twitter tears for his passing.
UPDATE: David Frum at the Daily Beast has a good piece on Breitbart, noting that it is difficult in his case to speak only good of the dead as "It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous."