Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Santorum's Rhetoric

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.

Wehner writes:

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.

Wehner continues:

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.


n.n said...

The "social" issues have always been the central issue of America's left and for the reasons you identified, they are divisive. In fact, with the "historical moment", they renewed the confrontation with their competing interests. While our economic survival is certainly important, we cannot underestimate our society's progressive incompatibility with both the natural and enlightened orders. They denigrate individual dignity and devalue human life on a whim. It is their dreams of physical, material, and ego instant gratification, which are the principal cause of progressive corruption.

So, what is a reasonable counter to dreams of instant gratification? If we hope to preserve individual dignity, then in this world those dreams are irrational, and individuals who maintain them are unlikely to respond to rational argument; but, then again, they are also unlikely to respond to emotional appeals.

It seems the resolution of this conflict may well be impossible. Our best hope lies with each succeeding generation, but as our culture and educational system are similarly corrupt, then the general malaise will be perpetuated.

Perhaps a Trojan Horse approach? But then it becomes a game of chicken. The advantage will always reside with individuals and cooperatives which promise instant gratification to their followers.

I can just imagine the public tenor which existed throughout history when similarly divisive issues were to be resolved.

Trailer Dweller said...

As a constitutional conservative who was one of Santorum's constituents since the beginning of his political career and who has personally met him and tried to discuss an issue with him, I have found him to be very arrogant and holier-than-thou with us 'little people'. Simply put, I do not trust him. He is a liar.
Do an internet search on 'Santorum, residence, Penn Hills' and find out.

I also believe that all of the recent social issues noise has been just a diversion by the left from the real issues facing our country, including both economic problems and international issues.

Dennis said...

What I find interesting is that one can be a "Conscious Objector" in defending one's country, but cannot be a CO in passing out contraceptives which is in direct opposition to their religious beliefs??????????

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, especially Trailer Dweller, for offering his first-hand impressions of Santorum. Many of the rest of us have been speculating about him, so it's good to have some corroboration from someone who knows why he was repudiated by the voters of PA.

As I write, it looks like last night's debate showed off Santorum's weakness as a candidate and probably diminished him.