State of the SotU

Some notes for the teams


Back in college, it was customary for parliamentary debaters to give their teammates notes after important rounds, to go over what worked rhetorically and what didn't. In the spirit of uniting, not dividing—and because it would take far more alcohol than one consumes during the State of the Union drinking game for me to begin contemplating which side I'm willing to count as "teammates"—here are some notes for both Bush's speechwriters and the Democrats on the State of the Union address.

For the president: Not bad. You may have disappointed small-government folks by discarding the "ownership society" theme—the word "ownership" appeared only twice in the speech, and never in that construction—but it threw off the Democratic response…and made Bob Kuttner waste a preemptive strike in his Boston Globe op-ed.

Opening structure was strong, if unoriginal. Start with a confident survey of achievements, creating a sense of "we-ness" with your audience, then bring out the fnords. People hasten to include themselves psychologically in this positive "we," and they're stuck there when you invoke the threats "we" face and ask whether "we" will "turn back" or "falter and leave our work unfinished." Evocation of the persistent threat opened the way for a brief but stirring rendition of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on FISA Warrants," followed by a quick return to an uplifiting instance of progress against the threat.

Unlike the Democrats in their response, you did a good job tying your message of support for the troops to some memorable images, as if to say: "Hi, I'm George W. Bush. You may remember me from such films as Charge of the Manly Fighter Pilots and A Baghdad Thanksgiving."

For some reason or another, you seem to have developed a stutter when you say the phrase "weapons of mass destruction"—even when they're Qadhafi's. You may want to work on that. Speaking of which: "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities"? Is that like a simulation fruit-flavored juice drink? You were doing so well with the shift to "Saddam was a bad man" retrorationale; why queer your momentum by dredging up those old things? If you can get through the speech without a mention of Osama bin Laden, you can surely glide over the WMD question too.

Dramatic pauses are tricky. Leave a natural break in your speech after announcing that "key provisions of the PATRIOT act are set to expire next year," and you leave an opening for opponents to applaud that fact, as they did last night. You had the converse problem in the section on tax policy. We heard:

Unless you act, the unfair tax on marriage will go back up. Unless you act, millions of families will be charged 300 dollars more in Federal taxes for every child. Unless you act, small businesses will pay higher taxes. Unless you act, the death tax will eventually come back to life. Unless you act, Americans face a tax increase. What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away: For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent.

Now, you've got a series of parallel-structure sentences leading off with "Unless you act," after which there's a natural applause break. But the positive sentence urging legislation to make the tax cuts permanent has too many clauses to be the punchline, and you end up taking the break after "tax increase," hence the lukewarm applause. This confuses your friends: "Oh, we applaud here! Wait, can we clap for 'tax increase'? Crap." You end up with a few halting golf-claps, sapping your rhetorical energy.

Wisely taking a cue from Eminem at the climax of 8-Mile, you preempted critics on the question of alienating, well… the rest of the world. In some nitpicky "correspondence with reality" sense, the picture you painted here may not have reflected the level of substantive assistance we're getting on our adventures, or attitudes about the U.S. among foreign populations. But your use of the "but wait, there's more" technique was deft: Rattle off a long list of allies (in spirit, at least), making questions about how much real support we've got from them, or lost elsewhere, sound like pedantic quibbling. And of course, you frontloaded the list with Britain, Australia, and Japan so you already had some applause momentum by the time you had to close out with powerhouses like Bulgaria, Ukraine, El Salvador, and "17 other" such supporters.

The many bones to the religious right were lobbed just delicately enough to energize them without turning off moderates too much. You managed to discuss at some length a major caveat to the equal protection clause that would ensure marriage remained a straights-only club without actually mentioning gay people once. And give a raise to the nameless slickster who crafted the delightfully ambiguous phrase: "If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process." Supporters of the amendment will read it as: "Since they've done A, we have to do B," but you're left with significant wriggle room, since an alternative reading is "If they continue to do A, we might have to do B."

Despite these strengths, this was apparently less of a hit than last year's speech. Partly that's just because back then you had the energy of a charge-to-war message, rather than a "stay the course and keep sending your cash to a black hole with a P.O. box in Iraq" message. But it's probably also got something to do with the urine-testing and steroid business. You don't put a kazoo solo in a Wagner opera, and you don't bring up penny-ante stuff like this in the State of the Union address.

For the Dems: First things first. In the name of all that's holy, next year, do not allow your response to be delivered by a blissed out cult leader and an animatronic puppet more likely to inspire thoughts about the dangers of Botox than those of fiscal irresponsibility. The American people can hold out a few more months for the release of the Stepford Wives remake.

I know the threat of "Angry Dean" backlash looms large, but stop being so optimistic. You're in the minority in Congress and the other party controls the Executive branch. So don't tell us how strong the state of the union is; tell us why it's going to hell in a handbasket. Similarly, opening with a paean to the forces in Iraq sounds forced and defensive, as though you're saying "We support our troops, but…" Open with the bad news, and tack your declarations of patriotism at the end when you're laying out the Grand Democratic Vision for America.

Almost as important: Actually listen to the State of the Union speech. No matter how many times you've heard leaked news about an "ownership society" meme in the State of the Union speech, it may not show up. This makes your "opportunity society" theme sound weird and forced: It would've worked well enough as a touchstone to create a contrast, but on its own, it's too vague and fuzzy to work.

Speaking of fuzzy things, remember to personalize your heartwarming (or heartrending) anecdotes. An unnamed sick nurse from Sioux Falls isn't nearly as evocative or memorable as the image of little Ashley bouncing on the president's knee and telling the troops: "God bless us, every one!"

George Bush's speaking style may make us nostalgic for Bill Clinton. But the Democrats are apt to make people nostalgic for Newt. If that's not proof that they're in dire shape, I don't know what is.