- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

One of the sharpest tactics in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign arsenal is to belittle the value of rival Sen. Barack Obama’s oratorical skills, an attack strategy that Democratic observers say isn’t smart and isn’t working.

It is a line of criticism that Mrs. Clinton has used throughout much of her campaign, especially in debates with her rival, but one she is using more frequently lately as she attempts to counter the contrast between her nuts-and-bolts, “ready to go on Day One” stump speeches and Mr. Obama’s soaring rhetoric that summons Americans to unite behind his agenda for change.

“Speeches don’t put food on the table,” she said last Thursday at a General Motors plant in Warren, Ohio. “Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills.”

“My opponent gives speeches. I offer solutions,” she said.

It is a staple line in her campaign speeches in one form or another. “You can choose speeches or solutions. You can choose talk or action,” she said in Cincinnati on Friday.

But some party strategists who have been involved in many presidential campaigns think the attack strategy is ineffective at best and self-defeating at worst because it seems to smack of a self-acknowledgement that Mr. Obama has better communications skills — a chief requisite for an effective presidency.

“I don’t think it’s a smart attack, unless she can make the ‘all talk, no accomplishments’ charge stick. Clearly, when good oratory is linked to action, it enhances the effectiveness of the action,” said a veteran Democratic adviser who asked not to be identified.

Government scholars seem to agree, saying that oratorical skills are important attributes in a president seeking to lift up the nation, move it in another direction or build support for a reform agenda.

“The two most successful recent presidents are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who gave great speeches. They were really good at it, and that’s one of the reasons they were successful,” said Gregg Easterbrook, a governance studies scholar at the Brookings Institution.

“One of the main things we remember about Abraham Lincoln is his oratory. We don’t remember the details of a deal he cut with the House Ways and Means Committee, but we remember his speeches,” Mr. Easterbrook said. “You don’t have to be a good speechmaker to be a good president, but it sure helps.”

But Mrs. Clinton’s repeated put-downs of Mr. Obama’s speechmaking on the campaign trail have drawn growing criticism from pundits and pollsters — from liberals and conservatives alike.

When the New York senator was campaigning in early January in the Iowa Democratic caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, she said, borrowing a phrase from former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

“Clinton has not heeded her own lesson. She is campaigning in prose and has left the poetry to Barack Obama,” Brookings Institution analyst E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote last month.

Conservative pollster Frank Luntz, author of a book on strategic words that appeal to voters in campaigns, told CBS News last week that he’s “more than impressed” with Mr. Obama’s oratory. “I’ve been mesmerized.”

This blunt, almost brutal contrast in the speaking abilities of the two candidates is increasingly being highlighted in news accounts of their campaign events.

When Mrs. Clinton “speaks to large audiences, be it a rally with several thousand students or a fundraiser with well-heeled donors, she often sounds more like a senator than a presidential candidate — delivering wonky recitations of her policy positions instead of a raise-the-roof stemwinder,” the New York Times reported on Super Tuesday.

Mr. Easterbrook finds her criticism of Mr. Obama’s speeches ironic. “She is giving speeches to complain about someone giving speeches. She must think speeches are important, or she wouldn’t be doing it all day long,” he said.


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