Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's "them" vs. Bill Clinton's "I and thou"

Garance Franke-Ruta notes that in Romney's latest heart-to-heart ad, in which he faces the camera and addresses voters directly, he refers to middle class voters as "them," rather than "you." Franke-Ruta flags this as a fatal tell:
The problem with Romney's campaign is not just a secret video, or media- and PAC-hyped candidate gaffes. It's an approach to talking to and about people in a way that is othering, rather than empathetic -- so much so that in direct appeal to middle-class voters, Romney doesn't think to say (or, rather, no one on his campaign thinks to have him say), "The difference is my policies will make things better for you." 
The anti-Romney in this regard is Bill Clinton, the ultimate feel-your-pain politician, the Star Trek-caliber empath.  Exhibit A: when Clinton famously ad-libbed almost half his DNC speech earlier this month, the additions added not so much substance, as intensity, and as I noted at the time, a big part of that impassioned buttonholing was injecting a lot of extra we's, I's and you's:

1) I and thou, us and them: Clinton added a lot of pronouns. He added we quite a bit-- asserting a community of perception with the hall and the entire nation (relatedly, he converted "people" to "folks").  And I -- speaking from experience, directly to you. Also they -- adding agency to the Republicans while attacking them. 

We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor people folks to work their way into it and with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think You see, we believe that "we're all in this together" is a far better philosophy than "you're on your own." It is.
It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, Why? because discrimination, poverty poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth, When you stifle human potential, when you don’t invest in new ideas, it doesn’t just cut off the people who are affected; it hurts us all.
As for the adversarial "they" (vs. "you"):
in spite of all the rhetoric, they'll just do what they've been doing for more than thirty plus years now- They’ll go in and cut taxes way more than they cut spending, especially with that big defense increase, and they’ll just explode the debt and weaken the economy. And they’ll destroy the federal government’s ability to help you by letting interest gobble up all your tax. 
Clinton also drew closer to the audience by injecting rhetorical questions, commands, pleas, and plain old repetition when he wanted to hammer home a point. My close-read (in case you missed my buttonholing above) is here.

If it weren't so nakedly deceptive, Romney's attempt to co-opt Bill Clinton in this race would be almost touching.  After all, Romney for a season appeared to be the kind of wonkish centrist governor that Clinton loved to glom onto. But while John Sides might laugh at me for saying it, it kind of feels like Clinton's convention speech was the rocket that ignited Obama's campaign over these last three weeks, in large part by laying bare the cruelty of Ryan-Romney budgeting. It would be a lovely irony if Clinton's (and the less bear-huggish Obama's) "I and thou" sinks Romney's 'them.'

Related (ICYMI) When Clinton edits Clinton

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