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Romney’s Brief, Shining Moment: the Artful Acceptance Speech

February 2, 2012

Poor Mitt Romney. Even as this goes to web, the mediated world is spinning with stories about his remark “I’m not concerned about the very poor” (see video here). Yet Wednesday AM’s stories were all aglow with his Florida results. So, your correspondent puts forth the argument: A (brief) round of applause for Romney, Republican candidate for president and winner of the Florida primary. Not however for his victory, my praise is for his victory lap—the post-primary speechActually, not even all the speech. What caught my ears, and the journalistic attention of NPR, PBS NYT, Washington Post, CNN, Fox, MSNBC i.a., was the sound bite:

“A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us.”

A brief moment, rhetorically and news-cycle-wise, but nevertheless a shining one and so deserving of some consideration.

First, there’s the form. The statement is in the classical rhetorical figure of antithesis, which argues through contrast and appeals to our sense of balance. Lanham, in his work on style, Tacit Persuasion, describes its rhetorical force:

“clearly antithesis taps a deep power somewhere; its use as a tacit bargaining pattern occurs far too often to be caused by chance…By keeping the phrase but inverting its meaning we use our opponent’s own power to overcome him.”

This is exactly what Romney does. Consider the larger context of this sound bite. It’s a summary of Romney’s first major point, preceded only by the required round of acknowledgements. Immediately after those, Romney considers possible perils in campaigning:

“Primary contests are not easy. They’re not supposed to be, as this primary unfolds, our opponents in the other party have been watching, and they like to comfort themselves with the thought a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak. But I’ve got news for them.

Romney frames this as a response to Democratic glee, but it also addresses Republican fears about a splintered party. Romney can brush off Democratic opinions, but he has to worry about the Republican base questioning his campaigning tactics; he is breaking Reagan’s 11th commandment after all. He needs to get around the sacrilege.

So Romney brings up the fear, but links it to a Democratic strategy. This undermines it—it’s something our enemies think, not us. Next, he breaks from the summary narrative with a direct challenge “But I’ve got news for them”. This acts as a kind of drum roll, emphasizing his final statement in the argument: the antithesis.

It didn’t have to be an antithesis. Romney could have said “You’re wrong” or “We’re stronger for it”. To make his antithetical statement, Romney has to repeat himself, and repeating yourself in such a short time can have a negative effect—you look like you’ve lost your place or have nothing else to say. But here the narrative context followed by the sharp change in tone makes space for Romney’s antithesis—the audience is prepared both for the argument and for the rhetorical flourish. Small wonder it caught so much attention.

But there’s also the second bit of keenness, the content. Romney deflects the challenge of internal division with a Republican god-term, competition. Who among the Republican party will question the benefits of competition? Let negative campaigning flourish; it makes the Republicans stronger through the virtuous interaction of the market. In a few short lines and in one compelling sound bite, Romney clears the way for more intense campaigning, the kind that helped him win Florida.

Form and content, mutually reinforcing, and all in ten words. Here indeed is a happy and economical marriage. That should have pleased Republican voters. For a moment, anyways.

If you want to know more:

  • I recognize my survey of news sites could be cursory and idiosyncratic. I will also point out that Foxnews.com paraphrases rather than directly quotes Romney’s antithesis, preferring to quote in full other parts of the speech, as well as lines from the other Republican candidates.
  • For more on style, syntax and persuasion, all of Richard Lanham’s Tacit Persuasion is intriguing.
  • For more on the technical and historical aspects of antithesis, I consulted Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Classical Rhetoric for the Contemporary Student, though there is also Arthur Quinn’s  Figures of Speech: 60 Ways To Turn A Phrase.
  • For more on god-terms, devil-terms and even ideographs read us here.
  • I took the full quotes of Romney’s speech from RealClearPolitics.com, transcript here. Video of the speech can be found here.
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