Yesterday I suggested that Rick Santorum needed to overhaul his rhetoric. It’s one thing to raise social issues; it’s quite another to do it in a way that offends large numbers of voters.
Lurking in the back of my mind was the thought that in 2006 Rick Santorum was roundly repudiated by the voters who knew him best.
Considering how badly he lost his Senate race it would be irresponsible to fail to ask why. At the least, his defeat suggests that, as a politician, he does not wear very well.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Regardless of what you believe there are always numerous ways to say it. Some are more persuasive; some are less. Some bring you adherents; some alienate your audience.
You may revel in the fact that you have stated your beliefs with the utmost clarity, but if everyone turns away from you and your message, your victory will be brief and pyrrhic.
Yesterday Peter Wehner raised the same issue on the Commentary Contentions blog. Perhaps you will find his rhetoric more persuasive than mine.
The main (though not exclusive) problem for Santorum is his rhetorical approach to social issues. He’s said he would be the one president who would talk about the damage contraception does to American society. He’s spoken quite openly about criminalizing doctors who perform abortions. He’s made a passionate case against prenatal testing. He’s been quite forthright in his views against homosexual acts, about women in combat, and about women in the workforce. He’s given a speech in which he’s said Satan has systematically targeted the key institutions in American life. The danger for Santorum is that, fairly or not, these statements and stands, separately and (especially) combined, create a portrait of a person who is censorious and sits in critical judgment of the lifestyle of most Americans.
Perhaps the distinctions are subtle, but they are vitally important if the nation is going to have a reasoned debate about social issues.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important tone and countenance are when it comes to social issues. There is a great deal to be said for those who care about the cultural condition of American society. But the arguments on behalf of moral truth need to be made in ways that are winsome, in a manner that is meant to persuade. What this means, in part, is the person making the arguments needs to radiate some measure of grace and tolerance rather than condemnation and zeal. What we’re talking about is using a light touch rather than a heavy hand. To understand the difference, think about how the language (and spirit) of the pro-life movement shifted from accusing people of being “baby killers” to asking Americans to join a movement in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. Social conservatism, if it ever hopes to succeed, needs to be articulated in a way that is seen as promoting the human good and advancing human dignity, rather than declaring a series of forbidden acts that are leading us to Gomorrah.
Better wording would perhaps reduce the focus on social issues in the upcoming campaign. If a candidate is blunt and straightforward about social issues, filled with passionate zeal, he is likely to persuade only those who agreed with him in the first place.
And his zeal will distract voters from other central issues in the campaign. On this score the mainstream media has been more than happy to collude.
I suspect that the Obama team would much prefer to debate social issues and cast itself as the defender of American women. Surely, it does not want to make the election a referendum on Obama’s stewardship of the economy and of foreign policy.
Besides, voters are more easily persuaded to vote for a candidate who offers a political and philosophical agenda. The focus on Santorum’s social beliefs has completely obscured his agenda
How many voters today can identify a Santorum economic policy agenda? How many can tell you what he would do about the crisis in the Middle East? How many have confidence in his ability to manage foreign policy?
What if, next Fall, the world is facing an economic or foreign policy crisis? Will the American people rally to a candidate who has made a point of discussing of the damage that contraception has done to America?
I am not saying that there’s something wrong with debating social issues. I do it often enough on this site. Still, when a presidential candidate develops a brand, he will be judged not only by whether he is right or wrong but whether his brand is presidential.