Romney’s Words: When English Majors Write Their Own Speeches

Mitt Romney is smart, articulate, and incredibly handsome. Of all the GOP candidates currently running, Romney seems most likely to become the eventual nominee. He might be the most credible candidate to beat Obama. Moreover, Romney has a host of smart, talented people working on his campaign. However, having listened to Romney’s speeches, I sense that Romney’s campaign suffers from a subtle weakness that I, as a former Economics major, feel very strongly about: Romney’s speeches are fluent, but not always persuasive.

This weakness is subtle, because Romney has decades of experience as a a speaker and writer. Romney was an English major. Romney delivered commencement addresses at his graduation. Romney has written two books, including a bestseller, “No Apology: The Case For American Greatness.” Back in 2007, Romney even delivered his brilliant “Faith in America” speech.

Moreover, Romney has talented people working for his campaign. For instance, Romney’s speechwriter, Lindsay Hayes, has over a decade of experience. She interned with the White House Office of Speechwriting and has served two senators. She even served as a speechwriter on the McCain-Palin campaign. This lady is the lioness of speechwriters.

Why, then, do I think that Romney’s speeches represent a subtle weakness?

Romney suffers from a linguistic weakness that many humanities majors face, a weakness reinforced by their perception of their own fluency. They are articulate, comfortable with language, and use words that flow. Interestingly, Romney’s campaign seems to be well-staffed with humanities majors. For instance, Romney’s speechwriter, Hayes, was a humanities student: she majored in communications and political science.

What perspective is missing? An economic perspective.

Most people think of economics as being about dollars and cents, inflation and unemployment. But nothing could be further from the truth. At bottom, economics is about getting the maximum bang for the buck. Economics is about maximizing output from the smallest input possible.

This economic principle also extends to language: Economics is about using as few words as possible to achieve the maximum possible impact.

For all his faults, President Barack Obama knows how to use words economically. Obama’s 2008 campaign was based on a simple, but powerful poster titled “Hope.” Obama’s book carried a simple, but powerful slogan: “The Audacity of Hope.” Indeed, almost every Obama speech included a few buzz words that made them memorable: The audacity of hope. A more perfect union. A world that stands as one.

Why was “Audacity of Hope” such a powerful slogan? Because “audacity” is a rare, but known word. So when people hear it, they sense something unique.

In contrast, John McCain didn’t use words economically. His slogan was “Country First,” which is short, but consists of two common words that appeal to a common theme (patriotism) and doesn’t sufficiently appeal to people’s imaginations. McCain didn’t have a single poster with a memorable slogan. McCain’s latest book was titled: “Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them.” This makes for a nice topic, but not a campaign theme, because none of those words carried a bang. Most of all, can anyone remember a single speech that John McCain made, a single speech as famous as Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” or “A More Perfect Union?”

Now consider Romney. How many people know that Romney’s campaign slogan is “Believe in America?” But why did Romney decide to reuse John Kerry’s old slogan? More importantly, how many millions did Romney pay for that uncreative phrase?

Romney’s book is titled “No Apology.” But this title seems ineffective, and although the book sold many copies, it probably did so because Romney is a great man, not because he wrote great words. Therein lies the missed opportunity: Why did Romney’s campaign permit the book title to carry two negative words? Why use words like “No” and “Apology?” Why not something more affirmative, aspirational, and American?

Most tragically, there’s Romney’s speeches. All of his speeches since “Faith in America” have carried a tragic flaw: they contain missed opportunities. Although some of Romney’s lines are well-written, this is insufficient because all of Romney’s lines should be well-written. Consider the following:

ROMNEY (2008):

China, and Asia are emerging from centuries of poverty. Their people are plentiful, innovative and ambitious. If we don’t change course, Asia or China will pass us by as the economic superpower, just as we passed England and France during the last century. (43 words)

This is sensible, but could have been better. “Economic superpower” is clumsy and insufficiently memorable. Why talk about Asia rising from poverty when most people already know that? Why talk about Asians as “plentiful” and “ambitious” when this probably applies to most non-Asians as well? And why lump “China” and “Asia” together? Surely Romney knows that Asia is a continent. Why not try something that sounds more hopeful, and carries a bigger bang? Maybe something like this:

Divided, we face a Chinese Century. But united, we will build an American Century. (14 words)

or even this:

In the East, we see the rise of China. In the West, we see the resurrection of Russia. But if we stand together, we can achieve the apogee of America. (30 words)

Even in daily speech, Romney could probably use an extra speechwriter. Consider Romney’s response to a question on the environment:

ROMNEY (2011):

So the idea of America spending massive amounts, trillions of dollars to somehow stop global warming is not a great idea. It loses jobs for Americans and ultimately it won’t be successful, because industries that are energy intensive will just get up and go somewhere else. So it doesn’t make any sense at all. My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us. My view with regards to energy policy is pretty straightforward. I want us to become energy secure and independent of the oil cartels. And that means let’s aggressively develop our oil, our gas, our coal, our nuclear power. (129 words)

Romney’s answer was fluent, articulate, and verbose. But it lacks even a single memorable phrase. Although Romney answers the question, he uses up far too many words. In real life as in the movies, powerful people always say fewer words, not more. Therefore, Romney could probably have made a bigger impact by saying something shorter, like this:

The effort to stop global warming carries unpredictable benefits, but predictable costs. Rather than spend certain trillions on uncertain theories, let us instead recognize that economics and environmentalism are not opposing ideologies. Let us invest in new energy sources, whether taken from the earth below or from the heavens above. Let us recognize that environmentalism comes in different shades of green. (61 words)

Overall, I think Romney’s speechwriting team would probably benefit it it enlists someone who is good at fitting big ideas into small sentences. Romney’s speechwriter, Lindsay Hayes, could probably use someone with a technical background. Those people specialize in extracting maximum value from minimum resources.

Alas, Romney’s speeches reflect a subtle weakness, and its subtlety makes it hard to detect, especially since Romney– as a former English major– has a natural talent in matters that involve words. It’s just that Romney’s words seem to lack a special punch. When you’re running for the most powerful job on the planet, your every word should exude power.

Chris Seck is a 2L.