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Hillary Clinton is bad at speeches for the exact reasons she'd be a good president

Democratic National Convention: Day Three Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton has one job tonight: Deliver a kick-ass speech.

Unfortunately, it’s just not a job that suits her talents. In a rational world, "rousing convention speech" would be a job permanently bestowed on Barack Obama who, after all, got himself elected president largely on the strength of a rousing convention speech. Bill Clinton is very good at it, too. Joe Biden is good. Michelle Obama is great. Beyond the top ranks, Cory Booker shows a lot of promise. Nobody sensible would have watched Gavin Newsom in the early evening Wednesday, but he’s really good, too.

Clinton, by contrast, struggles with this stuff. And it’s not just because her delivery isn’t perfect; in many ways I think it’s underrated. It’s that her speeches themselves often aren’t very good. They’re over-stuffed with ideas that don’t necessarily relate, and flattened out like a computer merge of a dozen different people’s speeches rather than reflecting a distinctive voice or viewpoint.

That follows from the way she works. It’s a process that’s really bad at delivering memorable oratory, but actually makes a lot of sense as a model for running the executive branch.

Clinton highly values collaborative work — which makes for bad speeches

As Politico’s Annie Karni has detailed, Clinton favors a broadly collaborative approach to speechwriting involving three or four campaign staffers, a similar number of outside consultants, some longtime friends and associates not formally on the campaign, a couple of big-name ex-speechwriters and, of course, her husband. And in addition to the more-is-more philosophy of who gets input on the speech, she favors a more-is-more approach to content as well.

Why mention one of her policy ideas for helping working mothers in Ohio when she could mention three? Why mention working mothers in Ohio without also mentioning a policy for manufacturing jobs?

Writing by committee often ends up flat, and an insistence on including more and more issues and detail leads to writing that is boring. Each constituency that gets a shout-out appreciates it, but the overall product suffers. Great writing requires a greater willingness to say no, to cut things off, and to present one great perspective. (At times, of course, an unwillingness to say no also gets her into more profound problems, like with the Goldman Sachs speaking fees.)

The good news is that giving big speeches isn’t the president’s main job. In practice, speeches rarely seem to persuade people and research from George Edward and Frances Lee argues that they tend to be counterproductive — polarizing issues and galvanizing opposition.

The very qualities that tend to make Clinton bad at speechwriting — a penchant for the least-common-denominator and a passion for making sure no small thing is forgotten — are qualities that are extremely relevant to effective leadership in a political system that’s built to favor transactional relationships over big ideas.

The presidency is weak and presidenting is hard

The presidency is the most powerful office in the most powerful political system in the the most powerful country in the world, so in the grand scheme of things, the president of the United States is probably the single most powerful politician in the planet.

But viewed in comparison to the powers wielded by other heads of government, the American presidency is actually an extraordinarily weak office. Our federal system diffuses power down to the states and to myriad small-time local elected officials. We further diffuse power out to America’s unusually powerful judicial branch. The president’s legislative powers are sharply circumscribed by a bicameral legislature whose Senate even has the power to reject the president’s executive appointments.

Within the sphere of appointed executive officials, a wide range of important jobs — from the Federal Reserve chair to the FBI director — enjoy fixed terms of office and cannot be operationally controlled by the president on a day-to-day basis. Many other important executive functions are farmed out to an alphabet soup of semi-independent commissions — SEC, FCC, FTC, FEC — whose leadership the president only partly selects.

The upshot of this is that a successful president needs to govern collaboratively.

We have a mental model of decisive leadership in a crisis — the president snapping quick commands, making the hard choices no one else will — but what effective presidenting generally requires is coordination across diffuse centers of power. Most of the people whose acquiescence the president needs to get big things done genuinely can't be forced to do it. He — or, more to the point, she — needs to convince a lot of prickly stakeholders that even if they can’t all get what they want, it’s better to get something done rather than fall apart in a sea of bickering.

The result is often something closer to a least-common-denominator mush than to a bold vision.

That’s how you get things like the perennially unloved Obamacare, whose messy arcane reality never quite seems to match the heady aspirations of the decades-long campaign for universal health care. You don’t need to love this political system (I like Canada’s) to acknowledge that this is the reality of how it works and what it produces.

Which is all to say that the ultimate job of a president isn’t to give speeches, it’s to operate within a messy system of diffuse power that rewards consensus-building more than vision.

It sounds like a job for Hillary Clinton.

Presidenting involves a lot of meetings

Larissa Tiedens from Stanford and Melissa Williams from Emory are psychologists who in February published a meta-analysis of studies on the way perceptions of assertive behavior are mediated by gender. Such behaviors don’t alter perceptions of competence, but they do reduce likeability.

What they found is that women do, indeed, pay a penalty on average for behaviors that read as dominant. He is aggressive, she is pushy; he is passionate, she is hysterical. But women are, slowly but surely, moving up into more leadership roles across society. People still tell Gallup they prefer a male boss over a female one, but the gap has narrowed over the decades and indifference between the two is now the most popular option. One big way women leaders have made it work, according to Tiedens and Williams, is by relying on means of expressing dominance that don’t involve words.

Williams writes in a Wall Street Journal article that gives women in the business world advice on how to cope with an unfair world, that "women weren’t penalized for assertiveness that was expressed through nonverbal means — such as through expansive bodily stances or physical proximity."

This is advice, essentially, about how to run a good meeting without making other people hate you. Clinton is really, really good at this.

Bill explained this in his convention speech, that Hillary has been chairing meetings on a staggering range of subjects for decades. As my colleague Ezra Klein has written, she’s really good at building coalitions and people who’ve actually worked with her love her. This kind of work — hammering out agreements, building consensus, and achieving a coalition that’s willing to work with you — plays a much larger role in a president’s day-to-day work than does the job of delivering big set piece speeches. Getting a law passed by Congress requires you to secure the support of people with a range of views — lining up everyone from Bernie Sanders to Michael Bloomberg behind a single proposal.

It sounds like a job for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes presidenting takes a boring establishmentarian

I’ve been struck lately in this era of widespread disgruntlement with governing elites at the extraordinary extent to which our recent troubles are the fault of outsider types who don’t know what they’re doing.

The poster boy for this is George W. Bush, who not so long ago could be found arguing that governing experience was overrated and what America needed was an outsider to clean up the mess in Washington. Bush was, in many respects, simply a president I disagreed with ideologically. But he also oversaw a genuinely incompetent administration. Ideology played a role in Bush’s foreign and domestic failings, of course, but Bush’s reputation and the health of the conservative movement were massively damaged by the bungled Iraq intelligence and warplanning and the total inattention to financial regulatory matters.

Obama, too, made rookie mistakes in 2009. His vetting process didn’t work well, he was inattentive to personnel matters, and as a consequence crucial jobs at the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Housing Finance Agency were unfilled at the time when smart leadership there could have boosted the recovery.

A disastrous war, a cataclysmically unsupervised banking system, and a painfully slow recovery: These are the public’s very legitimate complaints with American governance in the 21st century. But they show, mostly, that America doesn’t need a charismatic outsider. Instead, a diligent worker who will put the time and energy in to make sure the little things work — because sometimes the little things cost millions of jobs or thousands of lives.

It sounds like a job for Hillary Clinton.

Make American politics boring again

I’ve always loved politics. I used a dial-up internet connection to debate issues on Prodigy. I spent two weeks of the summer of 1998 in the dorms at American University at a weird camp for teenage politics dorks. In 1999, I got to college and the watchword of the day among people interested in politics was apathy. Why were kids so apathetic these days? Why didn’t they care?

The answer, in retrospect, is that the politics of the late 1990s were really boring and only a ridiculous politics dork would be interested in them. Yes, there was a shocking sex scandal. But mostly you had aides from opposing parties huddled in room talking about pay-fors and offsets and S-CHIP expansion. A normal, sensible person could take for granted that the country was going to basically function from one day to the next in a non-catastrophic manner and move on with the problems in their lives.

That all changed on 9/11. It’s been good for me, professionally, to have moved into writing about politics on the internet in the midst of a vast structural increase in the level of public interest to politics. Donald Trump is a great story. Here’s a guy who has no idea what he’s talking about and might destroy American democracy and people are voting for him! Great story.

But while it might be bad for me, American needs its politics to get a lot more boring again. The good news is there’s some signs we might be turning back that way. The economy isn’t great, but it is okay and it continues to get stronger. Crime is higher than it should be, but it’s lower than it was 10 years ago. ISIS is horrifying, but 15 years ago we were worried about terrorists with a nuclear bomb, not an AR-15.

What America needs is someone to keep it on track. To do the tedious, boring work of filling thousands of executive branch appointments with competent people and to get them more or less on the same page about what they’re supposed to do with themselves. To sit down with congressional leaders and hammer out budget deals. To try to make sure nothing too interesting happens, and that men and women across this great land of ours can afford to go back to not really caring about what happens in Washington.

It would make for a terrible speech, but it sounds like a job for Hillary Clinton.


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