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Beyond the Beltway: The Inability to Articulate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

One common theme emerging from the post-GOP debate analysis is the focus on which candidates scored rhetorical points. Given that the debate is on some (superficial) level about delivering verbal punches, this makes sense. However, this focus is unhelpful and even distracting as it obscures the more important question: which candidate most forcefully demonstrated the ability to articulate substantive, meaningful positions in a memorable way. By that rubric, the clear answer is - no one.

As a matter of historical note, America's most beloved presidents also happen to be, in several cases, its most articulate. George Washington was known for speaking plainly, truthfully, and powerfully. Guided often by the pen of his trusted advisor and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's words guided a young nation through innumerable crises, e.g. the Whiskey Rebellion, in its formative years, and in his farewell address set the model for executive branch leadership that has guided every president since.

Likewise America's sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln. The former Illinois river boat captain who became the savior of the nation uttered immortal truths that steered the ship of state through its darkest hour. The Gettysburg address, and the wartime correspondence he penned to grieving families of fallen Union soldiers, are rightly still invoked over a century later to commemorate Lincoln's leadership during the country's gravest constitutional crisis.

Today that energy is lacking, and the GOP field offers little hope that this situation will change any time soon. If one of the candidates has the capacity for this type of greatness, one that Americans demand, respect, and, most importantly, will vote for, now is the time to show it. Each of these examples demonstrates a very common and critical sequence: conviction drives rhetoric, which drives policy, which drives progress at crucial moments. None of these things can be assumed, and none is alone sufficient. The recent GOP presidential debates have underscored the unfortunate absence of this kind of rhetorical stature.

Newt Gingrich is a policy encyclopedia, but his acumen commands little enthusiasm for his candidacy. Mitt Romney likewise assumes the mantle of the technocratic over-achiever, but his well reasoned policy points marshal no passion for the leadership he purports to offer. Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum have solid enough legislative credentials from which to speak, but references to legislative votes and introduced-but-not-passed policy proposals do not heighten their stature to the level one expects in a president; rather, they make them appear mere legislators when a chief executive is required. Rick Perry, the only current executive in the field, offers the most promise in terms of possible presidential charisma, but his perceived conservative bona fides have heretofore been clumsily and crudely expressed.

In short, the presidential field lacks a contender who presents even the remotest possibility that he or she could, with enough practice (and perhaps the assistance of wordsmiths like Alexander Hamilton, Ted Sorensen, and Tony Dolan) emerge as the kind of transformational communicator needed at this historical moment. The Blue Goose requires behind it an individual with the singular ability to summon Americans to the greatness to which they are accustomed.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the presidency requires an individual who can rise to the occasion and do more than recite lofty rhetoric emblazoned on a teleprompter. Americans can do and daily do rise to the occasion in their own lives and professions, so why should they not demand the same of their president?

For all his faults, most Americans would agree that after 9/11, President Bush was that kind of president – the kind who fully inhabited the office and spoke accordingly. When he grabbed the bullhorn and strode atop rubble at Ground Zero to declare that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" he epitomized what James Madison described as that quintessentially American political leadership, that "energy in the executive."

Finally, and more recently, Presidents Kennedy and Reagan stand as leading modern examples of this trend. Little needs to be said about their willingness to use, and their effectiveness at using, the presidential pulpit to advance the cause of reform at home and freedom abroad. "Bear any burden" and "tear down this wall" are forever etched in the national consciousness, and both stand as striking examples of the capabilities of both parties to stir the nation to greatness.

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