A few years ago during Obama’s first Presidential election campaign, many of his opponents (even those within his own party) criticized him for his use of rhetoric. Hilary Clinton famously said that “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” Unfortunately, both she and John McCain ignored this and chose to campaign almost entirely in prose, leaving the poetry field wide open and uncontested to their opponent.
Fast forward four years, and how things had changed. Mitt Romney wasn’t going to make that mistake, no sir. Knowing he was up against possibly his generation’s most effective orator, the Republican candidate was as poetic as the next man.
His use of rhetoric in many speeches really impressed me and I thought they were just as good as the President’s. His delivery was never going to match Obama’s – let’s face it, few people can match him on his day – but the rhetorical content was just as good (read a rhetorical analysis of a handful of his speeches).
And the same can be said about Marco Rubio’s ‘official’ (as opposed to Rand Paul’s ‘unofficial’ one) response to the President’s SOTU speech. A full transcript of the speech is given below, with all of the rhetorical devices and figures of speech highlighted. It’s a good speech, carefully written by someone who knows his (or her) rhetoric.
The official response is always a tricky speech to give (few recent deliverers have covered themselves in glory – remember Bobby Jindal?) . You’re beginning to speak just as the majority of America is reaching for the TV remote, and you’re doing it from an office without an adoring live audience to give you standing ovations. Plus … it has to sound like it’s a response to what the President’s just said, but has to be written before he says it.
Having said that, it isn’t as hard as it sounds. Rubio and his speechwriters had a pretty good idea what Obama would say (let’s face it, he says pretty much the same things in most of his speeches) and as an exposition of the Republican case for smaller government and growing the economy out of recession, I’d say the speech had a nice, logical flow.
First off … a negative. I thought the opening was weak. I’m a constant critic of the way President Obama opens with what seems to be individual thanks to every single person in the audience, but I guess when you’re POTUS you’re pretty much guaranteed that people will listen to you (for a while, anyway) so you don’t really need a great opening. Plus, getting a name-check from the Prez gives these people political capital with their local constituents. So he can be forgiven.
But Marco Rubio’s not POTUS, and his audience would already have listened to a lengthy speech and not really be in the mood for another. So he really needed a powerful opening to make them sit up, put the TV remote down, and listen in, i.e. he needed to give them a very good reason to give him the next 15 minutes of their life (read 6 ways to grab ’em by the throat here).
Not many people motivated to watch the speech would have been unaware of who he was, but how did he spend that first invaluable couple of minutes? With a self-introduction and meaningless waffle – “Good evening. I’m Marco Rubio. I’m blessed to represent Florida in the United States Senate. Let me begin by congratulating President Obama on the start of his second term. Tonight, I have the honor of responding to his State of the Union address on behalf of my fellow Republicans. And I am especially honored …..” (yadda, yadda, yadda …)
The first words out of my mouth would have been something like, “Tonight you’ve just heard a speech from a President who thinks …..” and then finished the sentence with something powerful that would have made headlines the next day, and made people want to listen to what I had to say. Score: 4/10
If you’re ever having to counter someone else’s argument, a great way to do it is to use a rhetorical device called Antithesis. This puts two contrasting or opposing ideas back-to-back, effectively saying, “It’s not X …. it’s Y.” I reckon Rubio used this device more than any other in the speech.
- “(The opportunity to make something of yourself) “… isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy.”
- “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.“
- “More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them.“
- “And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty.”
- “Hard-working middle class Americans … don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They want a plan to grow the middle class“
So I thought the bit on the economy was strong. There were no real disagreements on immigration, as both parties are now singing (for once) from a similar hymn sheet. (The only real difference is the GOP has to try and sound ‘hard ass’ about border control while Obama claims that battle is already virtually won.)
The weakest part, though, was about gun control, where he didn’t even try to put forward a serious counter-argument. Perhaps because he’d been less sure what Obama was actually going to say, perhaps because he felt his argument was weak, perhaps because the President saved his full rhetorical prowess for that topic. I don’t know. But simply saying, “We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it” and then moving on to something else is not even trying to argue the case. It’s giving up. It’s surrendering the field to your opponent without a fight.
A weak (ish) call to action, as in: “Each time our nation has faced great challenges, what has kept us together was our shared hope for a better life. Now, let that hope bring us together again. To solve the challenges of our time and write the next chapter in the amazing story of the greatest nation man has ever known.” It could have been far more powerful.
BUT … I like the final (and now seemingly obligatory) ‘God bless‘ bit. Mitt Romney normally closed with something along the lines of “May God bless you! May god bless the American people, and may God bless the United States of America!” and Obama generally does similar (on Wednesday it was “Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”).
Rubio added a twist by adding a blessing for the President. He said, “May God bless all of you. May God bless our President. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.” Including this was surprising per se, especially as he’d already congratulated him during his opening on winning the election.
In doing it he used a rhetorical device called Climax, which arranges several words or phrases in order of increasing importance or emphasis. Whether he did it deliberately or not I don’t know, but putting America after the President is subtly reminding the audience that the country is more important than the post. Score: 6/10
(NB: You might think that all politicians end their speeches with a variation of ‘God bless America’, but Richard Nixon was the first to do so in 1973. None of his successors did until Ronald Regan, who said it at the end of every speech for 8 years, and now it’s become de riguer.)
Rubio’s delivery was fluent and confident, with lots of vocal inflection. And he managed to sound as conversational as it’s possible to do when speaking direct to camera. BUT … he does let his body language betray his nerves on big occasions. Last time it was not knowing what to do with his hands. (Read my blog about his recent immigration speech:How your body language shows your nervousness even before you present.)
This time it was reaching off-screen for a bottle of water to hydrate his dry throat (watch it on video here), something that was tweeted about endlessly. Two things if you worry about having a dry throat. Have a glass of water in view and don’t be afraid to sip from it quite openly; his faux pas here was reaching off-screen for a bottle out of shot because it was obviously unplanned. Second, rub a small amount of Vaseline on your teeth; run your tongue over this when your mouth feels dry and you’ll automatically salivate. Score: 7/10
(The speech transcript is below. As usual, I’ve identified the rhetorical devices used and highlighted them in bold with their names in brackets and (CAPITALS). If you’re unsure about what any of them mean, visit Rhetorical Devices for full explanations and examples.)
“Good evening. I’m Marco Rubio. I’m blessed to represent Florida in the United States Senate. Let me begin by congratulating President Obama on the start of his second term. Tonight, I have the honor of responding to his State of the Union address on behalf of my fellow Republicans. And I am especially honored to be addressing our brave men and women serving in the armed forces and in diplomatic posts around the world. You may be thousands of miles away, but you are always in our prayers (ANTITHESIS).
The State of the Union address is always a reminder of how unique America is. For much of human history, most people were trapped in stagnant societies, where a tiny minority always stayed on top, and no one else even had a chance. But America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them.
Like most Americans, for me this ideal is personal. My parents immigrated here in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and give their children the chance at an even better one. They made it to the middle class, my dad working as a bartender and my mother as a cashier and a maid. I didn’t inherit any money from them. But I inherited something far better (ANTHITHESIS) – the real opportunity to accomplish my dreams.
This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life (EXPLETIVE) – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy (ANTITHESIS) where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.
Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.
But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems (ANTITHESIS). That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough (TRICOLON & ANTISTROPHE). And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more (TRICOLON & ANTISTROPHE).
This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small (EXPLETIVE) – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.
And the idea that more taxes and more (ANAPHORA) government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle class taxpayers – that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.
More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.
More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them.
And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty (TRICOLON, ANAPHORA & ANTITHESIS x 3)
Because more government breeds complicated rules and laws that a small business can’t afford to follow.
Because more government (ANAPHORA) raises taxes on employers who then pass the costs on to their employees through fewer hours, lower pay and even layoffs (TRICOLON).
And because many government programs that claim to help the middle class, often end up hurting them instead (ANTITHESIS).
For example, Obamacare was supposed to help middle class Americans afford health insurance. But now, some people are losing the health insurance they were happy with. And because Obamacare created expensive requirements for companies with more than 50 employees, now many of these businesses aren’t hiring. Not only that; they’re being forced to lay people off and switch from full-time employees to part-time workers.
Now does this mean there’s no role for government? (HYPOPHORA) Of course not. It plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security (TRICOLON) against the risks of modern life. But government’s role is wisely limited by the Constitution. And it can’t play its essential role when it ignores those limits.