By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Forget the specifics of their arguments for a moment—who got the better of the national security speech-off yesterday, tone-wise? Obama did (perhaps not surprisingly given his well-known rhetorical talents). In fact in purely tonal terms (and yes, things like tone matter in modern politics), the Republicans would be hard-pressed to find a worse spokesman.
Obama was poised, professorial and appropriately passionate. One of his rhetorical strengths is the ability to, as he put it in his speech at Notre Dame, make his case with passion and conviction but without "reducing those with differing views to caricature." He also projected optimism and confident strength. As I've argued before, I think the national mood is turning from the fear-and-anxiety-soaked post-9/11 years, and I think Obama is in tune with the new mood.
I'm not the only person to think so. Dick Cheney agrees with me. And he's irked about it. The Bush administration took criticism, he said, especially in its waning years, when "the sense of general alarm after September 11th, 2001 was a fading memory." Ah, how we all yearn for that sense of general alarm.
The fact that Cheney and Obama conveyed starkly different views of national security yesterday has been noted repeatedly (and their supporters, I wrote earlier, likewise had starkly differing interpretations of them). So too were their presentations almost mirror opposites. If Obama aims to argue without reducing his opponents to caricature, Cheney seems incapable of doing otherwise. His logic, as TNR's Jonathan Chait put it, can be summed up thusly: "To object to the methods of torture used against terrorists is to declare them innocent. You're either with them or against them." If Obama is optimism and confident strength, Cheney is snide anger and fearful strength: The danger we face is too dire for anything less than extreme, preventive measures to deal with it.
His tough talk, dour tone and dismissive attitude toward those who would disagree with him undoubtedly plays well among true-believers, but won't do as well among people not already in his camp.
Cheney's gloom-doggling (to use a word I borrowed from Dwight Eisenhower in my column in this week's digital edition of U.S. News) cuts against the direction in which the national mood is moving. And so to the extent that Cheney makes good points (and he makes a few—a very few, but the Obama administration needs to release the rest of those memos or explain why not), they are overshadowed by his miasma.
It's unclear whether the White House knew about Cheney's speech when they scheduled Obama's, so the timing was either a stroke of luck or a stroke of genius. But to the extent the GOP wants to take on Obama on these matters, they need a better spokesman.
But what do you think: Was Cheney or Obama more effective?
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