Tuesday's Debate: The Rhetorical Strategies

James Arlandson took a stab at analyzing the Tuesday night debate, candidate by candidate, and was roundly abused for his efforts in the comments section.  When I last looked, comments ranged from the annoyed to the indignant.  No one said, “Well done, James” -- though of course readers may have thought this who didn’t leave comments.

Let’s try a slightly different approach.  Let’s look at the rhetorical strategies of each candidate.  Of course you can’t separate style from content, but it’s worth taking a quick look at the approach of each contender.

If you like high school Kiwanis Club speeches, you’ll always enjoy Marco Rubio’s performances.  The platitudes are delivered less robotically than in the past, but the viewer’s eyes still glaze over.  Marco is capable of occasional extemporaneous observations that are more riveting, though not so incisive as his more intelligent rivals.  But how many times do we have to hear about his parents, the bartender father, the maid mother?

As everyone who had to take Freshman Comp in college used to learn, there are three rhetorical appeals -- or so said Aristotle:  Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.  Ethos is an appeal to the authority of the speaker, Pathos to the emotions, and Logos to logic.  Rubio probably resorts to Pathos a little too often for the taste of most conservatives.

With Ben Carson, too, we’re back at the Optimists Club.  The platitudes, in his case, are interlarded with a little folksy humor.  But his delivery, as has been remarked more than once, is uninspiring -- it’s as if he’d really rather be taking a nap.  Spatial and verbal intelligence are probably inversely coordinated.  (Psychiatrist to surgeon:  “I had a terrible day.  I had to touch one of my patients.”  Surgeon:  “You had a bad day!  I had to talk to one of mine.”) It’s rare to find someone gifted in both.  Carson is not quick on his feet and not able to speak with the confidence and mastery of detail of Cruz, Kasich, Fiorina, and Paul.  To Carson’s credit, he has as compelling a personal story as Rubio, but he doesn’t peddle it nearly as often.

Speaking of uninspired, there’s Jeb Bush, moving further and further to the outer edge of the stage with successive debate.  Bets are still open on when he’ll wind up in the wings.  Jeb doesn’t mention his dad and mom, but he’s clearly inherited G.H.W.’s inarticulateness.  Let’s give him credit, though, for uttering the words “Islamic terrorism” -- even if he then immediately called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, apparently forgetting who has planes and who doesn’t.  Jeb seems like a nice guy, and was a decent governor.  Naturally, he tries to draw on Ethos -- his terms in Tallahassee.  But he’s not nearly as effective in linking questions to his executive experience as is John Kasich.

As commenters will be quick to point out, Kasich is a RINO to his fingertips.  But he’s an adroit, if overbearing, speaker and able to rattle off his accomplishments in Columbus and in D.C. without sounding like he’s reading from a teleprompter.  He also performed a decent exercise in Logos with his tour d’horizon of foreign trouble spots.  But he also played cadenzas on the violin about his letter-carrying dad and coal-mining grandpa, and the children of illegal immigrants.  And he’s taken on the role of being the debunker of hopeless utopians like Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Paul -- and even, Tuesday night, Fiorina.  So he comes across as aggressive and truculent.   Here he also draws on Pathos, the appeal to the emotions:  he’s the long-suffering adult in a room full of children and philosophers. 

Speaking of testosterone, Carly Fiorina managed to come across as the most steely-eyed and virile of the candidates.  Some, like Arlandson, are put off by her unsmiling demeanor -- more CFO than CEO -- but I’d rather see her go mano a mano with Hillary or Vladimir than I would almost anyone else on stage.  She made her case on most questions persuasively and also passionately -- but without making viewers, or at least this viewer, conscious of his emotions being tugged at.  Unfortunately, she passed up a great opportunity at the outset to explain why there was higher job growth under Clinton than under Bush II.

Rand Paul is also a practitioner of Logos, and did well Tuesday.  Apart from Cruz, he’s the only candidate familiar with another concept from the Greek rhetoricians:  irony.  Trump confuses it with sarcasm.  So while Paul may not have convinced his audience that he’s the one true conservative on stage, you have to give him credit for factually based arguments and for consistently appearing reasonable and intelligent.  To this end, like Jeb, he keeps quiet about his dad. When Rand has to explain his hard left turn on non-monetary issues, including support for #Blacklivesmatter, we may see more Pathos.

With an IQ in the upper stratosphere and formidable debating skills, Ted Cruz always does well.  I thought he had a photographic memory, until he stumbled across his inventory of the departments he’d shut down.  But his Rick Perry moment is not going to hurt him.  Unlike Rick, he doesn’t have to put on a pair of glasses to look intelligent.  No doubt because Cruz recognizes that most voters are suspicious of cleverness, he ladles out dollops of Pathos, talking, like Rubio, about his immigrant father, and his dad’s fall and redemption.  It doesn’t come across as contrived as Marco’s story, but we’ve heard it before.

Donald Trump admirably stood his ground on the minimum wage and when he was hammered about immigration.  Yes, he would enforce the law.  But Trump’s message is pretty much all Ethos.  I’m a great businessman, I’ve made billions, I know how to negotiate a contract, what I’ve done for my casinos I’ll do for the country.  I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee (as another guy with an oversized ego, Muhammad Ali, used to say). This may be music to the ears of Trump fans, but if you’re not already a supporter, it’s not going to be persuasive.

Of course it’s the content that matters, and thanks to Gerry, Maria, and Neil (someone who does have a well developed sense of irony) we got to hear a lot more this time about the candidates’ fiscal and monetary plans.  There are some real choices:  we can vote for a flat tax, we can vote to abolish the Fed, we can vote for zero-based budgeting, we can vote to cut military spending or to raise it.

In the end, though, style matters a great deal.  We need look no further than the current occupant of the White House, who built a career on glibness and charm.  So readers have to ask themselves this question:  who do did you pay attention to when they were speaking, even if you disagreed with them?  Did anyone send a tingle up your leg?  Did you want to stand up and clap at any point?  We’re talking Pathos here, but I’m hoping it’s the surge of emotion that comes from hearing devastating logic and spontaneous eloquence.  At the very least, any such candidate ought to be considered a potential VP selection.