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Rand Paul Does Mince (my) Speech Expectations

November 3, 2010

Political campaigns, by their nature, tug at the nation’s fabric. Victory and concession speeches, on the other hand, knit constituencies back together.  Losers publicly declare they will peacefully go—winners promise to look after the whole of their territories. Pres. Bush’s 2000 speech ended on the lines “Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests and I will work to earn your respect.”  Pres. Obama, with his much clearer mandate, said “I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.” State-level politicians, turning more presidential every year, generally call for unity, too.

Election night, in other words, provides an opportunity to say “hey, look at us, acting like a real grown-up democracy and all.”  So what did Rand Paul say, post-Kentucky Senate victory?

Paul opened by saying he would bring Washington a message from “the people of Kentucky”.  But he doesn’t mention all Kentucky again, if you even count this above statement, one which implies all Kentucky agrees with the message he ran on.  Since 44% of Kentucky residents voted against Paul, believing is a stretch.  He ends,  “I am humbled by the honor bestowed on upon me by the voters of Kentucky,” but that’s a thanks and a pledge to the Kentucky citizens that voted for him.  Again it doesn’t take in the voters for Conway, or the residents that didn’t vote.  So, no explicit calls for unity.  Maybe he’s just subtle?

But, what to make of this:

When I arrive in Washington, I will ask them [the Senate], respectfully, to deliberate upon this.  We are in the midst of a debt crisis, and the American people want to know, why we have to balance our budgets, and they don’t.

First I’m going to quibble, because I like rhetorical questions, and because I spend a lot of time reading about deliberation. The picture Paul paints of his future action is one where he asks rhetorical questions, not poses deliberative topics.  Don’t get me wrong.  Rhetorical questions are useful.  But rhetorical questions come bundled with their own answers.   Deliberation requires inquiry into the problem as well as its solution. Paul has the answer picked out already—a balanced budget. I know, I know, we can’t all be experts on rhetorical vocabulary.  But there’s more than a word choice difference between setting up topics for deliberation and calling for predetermined responses.

Now I have a question:  When does someone stop being part of the American people and start being a Senator?  I don’t have an answer.  But Rand seems to be working on it, since his promise for future action is still in us/them language.  He is part of “the American people” (not the Kentucky people) and the senators are still “them” and part of the whole “Washington” synecdoche for everything bad about the good old USA.  But Paul was just voted into Washington, as a member of the Senate.

A fundamental requirement of serving in Congress is being an American citizen.  So Paul’s depiction only makes sense if we understand there is a way to be both an American citizen and not part of the American people.  It’s the same kind of splicing that makes it possible for Paul to say senators don’t balance their budget, when many senators just might have personal finances in the black.  But because they are senators, they are not American people, with American problems like managing a household budget.  Except for Rand Paul—who is going to join them but not join them.  In short, Paul’s speech abounds with division, both explicit and implied.  Of course, divisions aren’t inherently a bad thing, but here they are breaking with expectations.

That same night, a conceding Dan Onorato stopped his supporters from booing victor Corbett, and victor Marco Rubio talked about the “vast majority of [Americans], and vast majority of Floridians” he agrees with and wants to work for.  Kendrick Meek, who lost to Rubio, started by praising his supporters, but ends “Florida should be very proud of itself… Florida will live on and strive on.”  So Rand Paul’s comments are incongruous not only with traditional models but also with his contemporaries’ choices.

Still, I’m all for asking questions with respect and encouraging deliberation in the Senate.  If it breaks with expectation, to think a first-time Senator could really change things single-handedly, well, Paul broke conventions already.  And wasn’t there a young Senator from Illinois just a few years back, who really did shake things up?  Or am I confusing life with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  Again.

If you want to know more:

  • Interest in the genres of political address should send you flying to Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s classic book “Deeds Done in Words” with the newer edition retitled “Presidents Creating the Presidency”.
  • For arguments about what fosters deliberation, Linda Flower, Elenore Long, and Lorraine Higgins provide a way to think about the role of inquiry and language in “Learning to Rival: a literate practice for intercultural inquiry”.  Deborah Stone’s “Policy Paradox:  The art of political decision making” gives a political science approach to the difference between posing questions and prompting answers.
  • If you want to see how other sources covered Paul’s speech: as of posting, CNN noted Paul spoke by “Putting a special emphasis on the word ‘respectfully.’”  To my read, that’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s Marc Antony put special emphasis on the word honorable, (a point Mediate.com makes with scarequotes).  The same could be said of Paul’s use of the word deliberate. Foxnews.com posted a video clip of the speech.  Fox’s clip of the video cut a bit of the beginning, which is why my link above is to the MSNBC version.  MSNBC names the soundtrack for you (if your Shazam app wasn’t working).  Alex Parrene at Salon.com writes: “This is an EPIC victory speech from Rand Paul. The theme is how if the Senate is so Deliberative, why don’t they Deliberate on HOW FUCKIN’ AWESOME AMERICA IS.”  “Time” did some historical citation checking.  (Quick quiz:  Do you know who said “That government is best that governs least?).
  • The “Financial Times” has a freely available transcript.
  • See Jimmy Stewart go to Washington and give it what for, in the trailer here.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Haddie Yuster permalink
    November 8, 2010 2:12 pm

    Again Alexis, you’ve made me think outside the box. By reading your blog I hope to learn and thereby become a more decerning American!

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