How good does a candidate’s basic stump speech need to be? Pretty darned good. Excellent, in fact.
Because what’s riding on it, at least at the beginning of a campaign, is just about everything. We get only one chance to make a good first impression; for a political candidate it’s during The Speech. Those few minutes — these things generally last between eight to 15 minutes — are a political and personal precis, a distillation of why they’re running and why they’re the best — nay, the only — choice for the office. The Speech is a summing up of one’s world view and how the candidate fits into it. How the voter fits into it, too. Ideally, it’s an all-purpose affair that can, with tweaks here and there, be delivered to any audience, anytime, anywhere.
I’ve been thinking about stump speeches since I heard Jeb Bush deliver his recently in Sweetwater, a small working-class ’burb in west Miami-Dade, with many Nicaraguan-American and Cuban-American residents. It happened only a few days after the shakiest week of his nascent (and still undeclared) campaign when it took four torturous days for Jeb to definitively say that America should not have invaded Iraq.
Whew, it was so hard to say it when it should have been the first answer he put in the can months ago. Fumbling the question repeatedly wasn’t fatal, but it cracked his aura of invincibility. Jeb suddenly looked rusty.
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So I was eager to hear how he would recover his footing, especially with a hometown crowd. For the venue he chose the Jorge Mas Canosa Youth Center, named for the feisty Cuban exile leader. The crowd of about 400 was impressive for a Monday night 15 months out from the GOP convention, 18 months from the general election. The well-dressed attendees nibbled bocaditos and listened to rhythmic Cuban son from a live band before Jeb and party arrived. He was accompanied by his wife, Columba, and son Jeb, Jr. Dressed in a guayabera and switching effortlessly from English to Spanish, it was easy to see why he checked the “Hispanic” box when he registered to vote here years ago. An inadvertent error, he now says, but Jeb does encompass two ethnicities and cultures, and does it easily.
But about The Speech. It was good, solid, dependable stuff. Delivered without notes, a script or, God forbid, a TelePrompTer. Clearly, it was the same speech he’s been giving to donor groups for the last few months. Whether it’s the speech or the family name, Jeb has reportedly collected close to $100 million for his campaign.
It’s heavy on foreign policy. President Obama, Jeb says, is afraid to use America’s power to keep the world safe, or uses it in the wrong proportions in the wrong places. “This president doesn’t think American power is a force for good,” he told the crowd.
“When we’re strong, our enemies fear us, and our friends know we’ve got their back.” There was passing mention of Iraq and Afghanistan, none of Benghazi. He brought up Cuba only tangentially. “Name a country where we’ve got better relations now than before this administration took office,” he asked. “Cuba and Iran. Is that the foreign policy we want?” No, the crowd thundered. One of the few big applause lines.
The major domestic theme is how to create an equal-opportunity society, hence the name of his Super Pac, Right to Rise. It’s a kind of conservative populism that’s just squishy enough and open to interpretation that it’s hard to resist. Every American, Jeb says, has a right to a good education, acquire meaningful job skills, land a good-paying job, raise a family and live a productive life.
The role of government, he says, is to largely get out of the way and let market forces work. Government can solve the big societal problems like immigration with “principle-centered leadership.” Jeb also emphasized that successful Americans have a responsibility for the disabled, the sick, the developmentally challenged. Compassionate conservatism.
There was only one moment in the speech that struck me as too obvious, too ginned up just to get the audience going. “I hope you want a president,” Jeb said, “who recognizes that this is the greatest country on the face of the Earth.” The crowd went wild, right on cue.
All in all, a fine campaign appearance by the former governor who delivered The Speech effortlessly to a receptive hometown audience. They’d paid $25 for the privilege, and most were already signed up.
But Jeb’s stump speech will have to get much better in the coming months to bring in the undecideds and independents or those leaning toward other candidates. His speech needs to be more tightly wound, pithier, studded with memorable phrases that stick with you afterward. Some laugh lines wouldn’t hurt either. The current speech is OK for supporters who know and like Jeb’s conservative record as Florida governor and know he’s the one his parents thought would one day be president.
That may happen, but first Jeb has to seriously upgrade The Speech. It’s early, and there’s time. But he must improve it if he hopes to win the GOP nomination — and the White House.