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May the (Rhetorical) Force Be with You on Future Occasions, Michele Bachmann

July 2, 2011

The last week has been a politically busy time for America. Not that our elected officials aren’t always busy–and then busy making up for being that kind of busy–but Michele Bachmann’s June 27th announcement of running for president does trump the dedication of a statue of President Ford.

At least if you’re looking for rhetorical force. Or is it entertainment? In other words, was Bachmann’s announcement more like the original trilogy or the prequels?

To her credit, Bachmann did not have a Jar Jar Binks-like sidekick bouncing around her. To her credit (or, at least, not to her discredit), there’s only so much a candidate can do with the genre of launching a presidential campaign. The platitudes of bringing a new voice to Washington and pointing to what we can and can’t afford are necessary filler. The details may vary (or not vary much, if we’re talking about Obamneycare), but Bachmann can hardly be faulted for saying what every other candidate has said on this kind of rhetorical occasion.

What Bachmann and her speechwriters can be faulted for is the misstep in establishing her identity and the projected identity of her supporters. With all her borrowing from Obama’s rhetorical handbook (cf. the inclusive moves in his “A More Perfect Union” campaign speech and Bachmann’s “there is much more that unites us than divides us” line in her announcement), Bachmann still puts up walls and makes sure everybody knows where they are.

For example, she declares, “Americans aren’t interested in affiliation; they are interested in solutions, and leadership that will tell the truth.” A nice sentiment, yes? Yet she proceeds to portray her supporters in terms of political parties rather than a specific agenda:

Our voice has been growing louder and stronger. And it is made up of Americans from all walks of life like a three-legged stool. It’s the peace through strength Republicans, and I’m one of them, it’s fiscal conservatives, and I’m one of them, and it’s social conservatives, and I’m one of them. It’s the Tea Party movement and I’m one of them.

The liberals, and to be clear I’m NOT one of them, want you to think the Tea Party is the Right Wing of the Republican Party. But it’s not. It’s made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life, libertarians, Republicans. We’re people who simply want America back on the right track again.

Unless, of course, you count “want[ing] American back on the right track” as an actionable item on an agenda. You can argue that a person’s political affiliation is still meaningful shorthand in this country, which is why Bachmann is referring to political parties even though she’s trying to rise above them.

But that’s precisely why Bachmann needs to work harder to define what she and her supporters want to see accomplished in a Bachmann presidency. Ideally, something that will distinguish her from the rather populated Republican field of presidential candidates. Ideally, something more specific than the following:

  • We cannot continue to rack up debt on the backs of future generations.
  • We can’t afford an unconstitutional health plan that costs too much and is worth so little.
  • And we can’t afford four more years of failed leadership at home and abroad.
  • We can’t afford four more years of millions of Americans out of work or in jobs that pay too little to support their families.
  • We can’t afford four more years of a housing crisis that is devaluing our homes and making home ownership impossible for many Americans.
  • We can’t afford four more years of a foreign policy that leads from behind and doesn’t stand up for our friends and stand up to our enemies.
  • We can’t afford four more years of Barack Obama.

(Yup, the bullet points are original to the text.)

But this isn’t a full-fledged policy speech, you say. Detailing your plans are what the debates are for! And I would agree with you, but she doesn’t actually say that she has a plan for anything. All of her “can”- and “will”-type statements (let’s hear it for modal auxiliary verbs!) are paired with platitudes, like “Together we can make a team that can’t be beat!”

All this brings us to the question of rhetorical force. Bachmann does forcefully state who she is and who her supporters are. But she doesn’t use rhetorical–i.e., persuasive–force. If you’re not already inclined to support Bachmann, there’s nothing in this speech to sway you to donate your dollars to her campaign.

Luckily for we rhetorical analysts, staying on the campaign trail she is. May the rhetorical force be with you on future occasions, Michelle Bachmann, or else you’ll be selling these t-shirts to finance your campaign.

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