Four points to keep in mind as you consider the reactions to the speeches we heard last night, and the ones we’ll hear Wednesday and Thursday:
One: The vast majority of folks in the media listen to speeches from political candidates and lawmakers all day long, week after week, month after month, year after year. They pick out clichés, tune out flowery rhetoric, scoff at awkward metaphors, and seek out novelty. (I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone.) The vast majority of the television audience sees relatively few political speeches in a year. Seeing a confident figure give an energetic speech, with pauses for roaring applause, and perhaps most importantly, saying things the listener agrees with, is going to get a positive response, even if the written text is nothing special.
Two: The reaction within the convention hall may be quite different from the reaction of the television audience. A reviewer may see the enthusiastic reaction of delegates and overestimate its appeal; also, I’ve heard that the acoustics in the hall are tough in some corners.
Three: People who do not like to hear speeches from Republicans do not watch Republican convention speeches, and the same is true for the Democrats. Thus, very few people will watch the speeches and not like them.
Four: Among the pundit class, there is a growing inclination to rate speeches as either really, really good, or really really bad. For example, this response to Chris Christie’s speech last night from Politico seems baffling to me:
There is no mistaking what a successful keynote speech for Chris Christie would have looked and sounded like. There would have been an electric reaction from the crowd in the convention hall. It would have been followed by waves of effusive media commentary about how people had just heard the future of the Republican Party.
Judged by these standards, there is also no mistaking what the New Jersey governor delivered instead: A primetime belly-flop, one that notably failed to clear either of those two high bars.
Really? A belly-flop? (Maybe they just wanted to use the word “belly” to describe the performance of the rotund governor.)
Sure, Christie began in a quite personal fashion, in a way we’re used to hearing from the nominee. Sure, he didn’t say much about Romney until well into the speech. Sure, there are signs he spoke a bit faster than normal towards the end, aiming to hit the 11 p.m. deadline precisely. But was it a bad speech? Would anyone argue that it was really that badly delivered? Didn’t he speak with a lot of passion and energy, didn’t his jokes generate actual laughs — “in the automobile of life, dad was just a passenger; Mom was the driver” — and didn’t the applause lines generate genuine applause?
Politico is at least self-aware enough to write:
What Christie is facing may be something close to what Clinton faced at the Atlanta convention. That speech was a perfectly fluent summons to Democrats. But, like Christie’s, it had been preceded by great anticipation because Clinton, then 42, had been widely touted as the future of the party. But it was clear that his words bored delegates in the convention hall, who were shown on TV paying no attention as Clinton droned on (for 33 minutes but it felt far longer) and mocked him with his only sustained applause line when he announced “in conclusion.”
Christie may be facing something similar to Clinton. The commentary about how poorly he did grew louder and more scathing as the media echo chamber, including late-night comedians, roared into high gear. He rescued himself from flames with a sterling performance on “The Tonight Show” in which he joked that the keynote speech “wasn’t my finest hour—it wasn’t even my finest hour-and-a-half.” In Tampa, it is clear the echo chamber is once again kicking into gear.
I cannot help but suspect that the last thing any pundit or analyst wants to say when asked about a speech is to respond, “It was pretty good.” Except that some speeches are “pretty good.” Some people will watch Christie and say it was excellent, just what they wanted to hear. Others will say they wanted to hear a bit more of this or that. But because an assessment of “pretty good” fades quickly in our noisy and cacophonous political environment, every speech is increasingly labeled as greatness or failure on a grand scale.