Every minority party faces a power vacuum, but the void at the top of the Democratic Party, and the national appetite for a leader of the broad Trump opposition, is drawing a record-setting number of Democrats into the political arena. It’s also creating makework for speechwriters to recycle tropes like these:
“This is not a time to build walls. This is a time to build bridges.”
“We have demonstrated that a policy ecosystem of progressive economic development works.”
“We still are decent people who are about the politics of addition and multiplication.”
“What we need is a middle-class agenda for America’s working families.”
Three of these are actual quotes, recently uttered by actual politicians seeking to forge bonds with the Democratic base. One I made up myself. Without clicking or Googling, I bet you can’t tell which are real and which is fake.
But if someone you knew and trusted casually said any of these things to you, would you think it was normal? Or would you think they had lost their minds?
Working in politics has a strange effect on how people talk about politics. It often makes them forget everything they know about normal human conversation. They instinctively code switch to an alien language we’re all expected to speak but no one remembers learning.
Whether it’s “working to give our communities the tools they need to thrive,” promising to “close the educational achievement gap,” or proposing three-point plans that change by the day, too many Democratic politicians are speaking in tongues.
And as they swarm local events in early primary states, anticipating a campaign that will begin in earnest just a few months from now, we don’t have much time to nip this trend in the bud.
I’m not exactly a spectator in all of this.
I’m a speechwriter—which means that I’ve been part of this problem.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what speechwriters actually do. Most people think we spend our days holed up in offices, our furrowed brows lit by our laptop screens, searching for that elusive, perfect turn of phrase that will inspire a nation.
That image is pretty inaccurate. Sure, Donald Trump’s scribe, Stephen Miller, might spend his nights huffing Adderall and looking up synonyms for “tremendous” on Thesaurus.com, but most of us have a different process.
Speechwriters are more like therapists than Aaron Sorkin characters. We carefully consider everything our bosses have ever said. We listen to their life stories. We try to get to the core of their hopes and values. When those stories happen to be a little boring, we try to find the magic in them. In the end, our success is not measured in how closely we stick to poll-tested applause lines or how many words on the prompter actually come out of our clients’ mouths. It’s how sure of themselves our clients feel when they’re under the lights.
Confidence is a key ingredient in a powerful speech. (If you want to see what I mean, just download and print out these remarks, deliver them to your bathroom mirror, and see how that goes. )
But these days, instilling confidence is only the beginning of what we need to do. We also have to wage war on bullshitty platitudes and eye-rolly phrases. They’re not just disingenuous—they’re dangerous. When we stop believing that the words we hear convey any real meaning, we inevitably become more cynical about the ideas they represent.
More and more of us—at least those of us of a certain age—are like Frasier from Cheers, losing patience with the empty nothings politicians say to avoid saying anything meaningful.
This distrust has bled into our attitudes about the government’s ability to better our lives—which is a big reason why the tear-it-all-down appeal of Trumpism has become so seductive. If there’s any hope of reversing this trend of cynicism, speechwriters will have to improve how their bosses speak about politics.
Let me immediately break one of my rules and propose a three-point plan to put us writers and other political message people on a better track:
First, don’t give in to convention. Human beings have an attention span of 10 minutes, max. So why do we so often begin remarks with five minutes of thank-yous and throat clearing? At the recent March For Our Lives, Emma Gonzalez didn’t mess around. She skipped the acknowledgments, and dove right into her point, in an incredibly powerful speech on the Washington mall. If you haven’t seen it already, watch it now.
Here’s an example of the opposite: Right now, if you ask most Democratic presidential hopefuls what brought them to this local Iowa Union Hall or that New Hampshire college auditorium, they’ll play coy. They’re focused on their jobs, and are definitely not currently running for president. They’re saying this nonsense only because that’s what they know they’re supposed to say.
We would never tolerate this level of conscious deception in any other aspect of our lives. Yet in politics we take it as a given.
Democrats running in 2020 should break this obvious fiction. I can’t think of a better answer than, “I’m actually not just at this steak fry for an affordable outdoor meal. I’m here because I think I’d make a pretty good president and let me tell you why…”
That’s how it’s always been done has always been one of the worst reasons to do anything.
Second, don’t strive for “authenticity.” By trying, you’ve already failed. Authenticity is the rabbit on the greyhound track of American political discourse. It’s not something people can actually obtain—and if you did, you probably wouldn’t want it.
You know who is authentic? One of my former bosses, Hillary Clinton. She thinks carefully about every word she utters, because she cares about getting her facts right and saying exactly what she wants to say — no popping off, no casual dishonesty, nothing crass or mean. To some, that can appear calculating, but it’s just what she sounds like, whether at a podium or in the privacy of her home. That’s pretty authentic! And yet, I’m told that some people are not fans of hers.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, lies in public about 35 times a week. He is, objectively, the least authentic person in the history of American politics. But that hasn’t stopped the Sunday shows, a rogue’s gallery of MAGA minions, and an alarming number of independent voters from hailing him as a model of unvarnished candor. People believe his obvious lies because he seems to legitimately believe them himself.
There’s a lesson here: the perception of “authenticity,” as meted out by pundits, is basically meaningless. So candidates might as well just try to be comfortable in their own skins. Besides, voters have really sensitive bullshit detectors—if candidates don’t have their hearts in what they’re saying, no one else is going to buy it either.
Finally, don’t get lost in the weeds. The U.S. Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” This dick move by our Founding Fathers means every year, we all tune in to a speech that is simultaneously about everything and nothing at all.
I haven’t had the honor of writing one of these addresses myself (though I know plenty who have — and they’re all pretty over it). I have, however, written many speeches at high levels of Democratic politics, where the process is only mildly scaled down.
It’s great that Democrats are inherently thorough people. But from a communications standpoint, it’s a disaster. Far too often, we seem to think that if we don’t mention a tax credit no one knows the name of (but which is nevertheless very important), it means we don’t value it. And so when it comes time to write a speech, op-ed, or policy platform, we end up feeling pressured to include every plan and proposal under the sun.
Having politicians who sound like think tank fellows is a phenomenon pretty much exclusive to the Democratic Party. Republicans are content to ignore obvious economic realities, most of modern science, and huge swaths of the American experience. They aren’t trying to strike any kind of balance—but because we Democrats hold ourselves to a higher, more empirical standard, we have a harder task ahead of us.
We also don’t do ourselves any favors. Either we’re too timid about overpromising (maybe $14 an hour is actually a more realistic minimum wage?), or too worried about failing purity tests (what about a Medicare-like program For *All Who Are Eligible*?), and we litigate our message and grind down our words until we’re not even sure what we’re saying anymore. Then, we deliver the speech to an audience of two main constituencies: people who are totally oblivious to this level of detail, and people who will take issue with literally anything we say.
It’s a no-win situation, so let’s sidestep it altogether. Instead of laying out the specific policies we’ll enact in our imaginary first terms with united Democratic majorities in Congress and a new, can-do spirit of harmony and optimism, perhaps we should encourage politicians to simply explain what they value. And rather than talking about what such a Congress can pass, let’s talk about what the country deserves. Don’t worry, it’s cool: the Washington Post doesn’t give out Pinocchios for dreaming too big.
We have a lot of battles to fight, many of which intersect, reinforce, or influence each other in important ways. The details of how we plan to fight them matter, and I’m hardly advocating a policy-free discourse. But every speech doesn’t need to be a State of the Union address. We already have one of those, and even that’s probably one too many.
Keeping it simple doesn’t mean we’re ignoring critical issues or dumbing things down. It means we’re making a point people might remember. And making points people remember is how candidates win.
The three small solutions outlined above will result in a better written product. But they’ll also come with an even more important benefit: our politicians will sound more confident. By reminding our bosses that they don’t always have to say what they’re supposed to, or act like they’re expected to, we can start to free them – and ourselves – from the tyranny of Morning Joe politics.
Besides, Donald Trump is president. There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore! It’s our chance to start saying what’s really on our minds.
We’ll all have a lot more fun.
And maybe together, we can
build a better future win a few more elections.
Ben Krauss is a former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine and Managing Partner at Fenway Strategies.