The No-Brainer Psychology of the “Big Speech”

Wednesday, 6 PM, Cable News:

Host: “Bob Slimsplacker, what does the  President have to do in the next two hours  to regain control of this debate?

Slimsplacker: “Roxanne, he  has got to come out with very specific ideas of what he wants and will not allow in this bill. He’s got to continue to extend the olive branch of bipartisanship, but he’s got to make it perfectly clear that enough is enough and it’s time to get this train moving. And above all, he’s got to sound absolutely Presidential.”

9PM, Cable News:

Host: Bob Slimsplacker, you said earlier that the President had to come out with very specific ideas of what he wants and will not allow in this bill. Did he?

Slimsplacker: “He certainly did, Roxanne. I counted at least seven extremely specific, concrete plans. I think anybody who was looking for clear direction certainly got it tonight.”

Host: And how about that olive branch of bipartisanship? And was he Presidential enough?

Slimsplacker: “Well, let’s just say the branch was there, but he’s ready to turn it into a stick or a baseball bat if needed.  And he was about as Presidential as it gets.”

This just-barely apocryphal scenario underscores something that has always amused me about Big Moments in our politics–major speeches, “crucial” debates, etc.:  It’s so easy to succeed.

Really. Many things seem mind-bendingly hard about governing, and God knows this health care reform is one of them, but when it comes to these  supposed Big Moments, it all becomes comically simple, following the same tired formula every time:

1. Media blabbers and the usual gang of political insiders from past campaigns and administrations set the conventional wisdom about What Must Be Done. Dirty little secret: these guys talk to each other all the time in a symbiotic information daisy-chain, so when Pundit A says the President or candidate  “must show that he can draw a line in the sand and make it stick,” or “must stop the snide personal attacks that are turning off the American people,”  it’s entirely possible that Pundit A got this notion from an off-the-record chat with a Highly Placed Official that morning–or the Pundit may have given the official the idea.

In other words, the bold pronouncements about What Must Be Done may be nothing more than recitations of what all the insiders already know is going to be done. This puts them in the happy position of the rooster who thought his crowing made the sun come up.

2. Knowing what the Conventionally Wise expect, and having in many cases helped to shape what they expect, it’s no surprise that the politician and his speechmakers whip up exactly what the CW orders.

3. Then, in the instant post-mortems after the Big Moment, the same revolving-door pundits who told us What Must Be Done give the politician high marks for having done just that. Hurrah!

Wouldn’t it be nice if all our work was that easy?

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