By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Last night I started to write — let me just confess, here — a short hit piece on Marco Rubio’s declaration. And when I first read the speech (transcript), it reminded me of a high school Junior’s overly practiced surefire winner for a regional Speech and Debate tournament. But then I noticed that Rubio used Obama’s favorite rhetorical device, anaphora, and that in fact the speech was artfully written. And then I started to notice how Rubio crafted his appeal, and I started to think that Rubio might actually be worth watching. (Granted, Walker has stomped more Democrats than Rubio, but Rubio is a much better speaker, and for sure Rubio would stomp Democrats given the opportunity.) So I broke out the Magic Markers, and started annotating Rubio’s speech. Let me admit straight out that I find the shiny-surfaced, brightly colored, Toy Story-like quality of Rubio’s rhetoric more than a little repellent. Still, I’ve managed to process Obama’s material, so let’s forge ahead! Below is a table of the color codes. Because this is a Presidential year, I’ve added two: Dog-whistle, and Red meat. And readers, this is the first time I’ve worked with a Republican speech, so please bear with me, and help me out of I miss stuff, especially dog whistles!
Oh, and let me note that I don’t view the study of rhetoric — the art of persuasion — as in any way academic. To do politics, one must speak, and persuade; writing is not enough. So study up and learn from the masters! (And then go on to develop your own style.)
A mish-mash of phrases from the Framers, Lincoln, Reagan, or MLK echoes, and so forth
Bathos is an abrupt transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace
“Free market,” “innovation,” “hard choices” etc.
“Our most vulnerable citizens”
“The troops,” for example
“Ring the changes on,” “take up the cudgel for,” “toe the line,” “ride roughshod over,” etc. (Orwell)
Falsehood or truthiness
Lawyerly parsing and weasel wording
“Ladies and gentleman,” and so forth.
Coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.
Precise or formulaic language on a highly polarized, generally right-wing issue, as in “red meat for the base.”
I’ve divided the speech into numbered sections. The speech proper is indented and color-coded, and annotations are formatted as footnotes beneath each section.
After months of deliberation and prayer about the future of our country, I have come here tonight to make an announcement on how I believe I can best serve her.
I chose to make this announcement at the Freedom Tower because it is a symbol of our nation’s identity as the land of opportunity. And I am more confident than ever that despite our troubles1, we have it within our power to make our time another American Century2.
1. Contrast the “cautious optimism” of the Clinton launch video.
2 Rubio’s “secular religion” is, throughout, American exceptionalism. Hearing that he announced at Freedom Tower, I thought I’d hear “because freedom” invoked much more directly.
2. Historical Perspective
In this very room five decades ago, tens of thousands of Cuban exiles began their new lives in America. Their story is part of the larger story of the American miracle1. How, united by a common faith in their God given right to go as far as their talent and work would take them, a collection of immigrants and exiles, former slaves2 and refugees, became one people, and together built the freest and most prosperous3 nation ever.4
For almost all of human history, power and wealth belonged only to a select few. Most people who have ever lived were trapped by the circumstances of their birth, destined to live the life their parents had. But America is different5 . Here, we are the children and grandchildren of people who refused to accept this.6
1. Hits the American exceptionalism note again.
2. Well, I suppose slaves were indeed “former slaves”, Americans, after the Civil War. Rubio can’t be referring to Cuban slaves, because he segued from Cuba through “the larger story of the American miracle,” and so must be referring to all Americans. On the other hand, if he really is referring to former Cuban slaves, “became one people, and together built the freest and most prosperous nation ever” refers only to Cuban exiles, and becomes a nonsense. As in so much else, slavery, the dark bargain on which the United States was founded, remains unassimilable in any triumphalist narrative like Rubio’s, as this tiny verbal slip-up shows.
3. “Freest and most prosperous nation” (repeated below) hits the American exceptionalism note again. However, there’s something about “freeest” that grates, and not just because of, say, Obama’s systematic destruction of the Fourth Amendment, or the militarizing of the police, which you would expect a conservative — Rubio is a conservative, no? — to decry. Is the United States superlatively free, compared to any other Western nation? If not, what can “freest” mean? Is there a freedom scale, somewhere>
4. “How… a collection… became… and built….” is, in fact, a sentence fragment:
Sentence fragments. Might sound good at first! More trustworthy. Because they’re simple. Not trying to complicate things. Like when a sentenc goes on and on. Making you lose track of the ideas. Not like straight talk.
At least in this one speech, the sentence fragment is Rubio’s distinctive rhetorical device. Obama shares many other devices with Rubio (anaphora, especially) but not this one.
5. American exceptionalism yet again; from now on, I’m going to draw attention only to, er, exceptional cases of this trope.
6. I concede I am moved by this paragraph, or would be, if I didn’t have some inkling of the policies it’s in aid of. (In this campaign, both Democratic and Republican candidates will be far more precise and adept at identifying our ideals and our “troubles,” in Rubio’s word, than they will be in offering solutions.)
3. Personal History
Both of my parents were born to poor families in Cuba.1 After his mother died when he was nine, my father left school to go work. My mother was one of seven girls raised by a disabled father who struggled to provide for his family.
When they were young, my parents had big dreams for themselves. But because they were not born into wealth or power, their future was destined to be defined by their past.2 So in 1956 they came here, to the one place3 on earth where the aspirations of people like them could be more than just dreams.
My father became a bartender. My mother a cashier, a maid and a Kmart stock clerk. They never made it big. But they were successful. Two immigrants with little money or education found stable jobs, owned a home, retired with security and gave all four of their children a life far better than their own.4
1. To quote the Times:
But six and a half years after Barack Obama was swept into the White House on a similar call for generational renewal, the challenge facing Mr. Rubio is whether voters are looking for another charismatic first-term senator with a compelling personal story who promises to be a transformative figure.
Second time as farce?
2. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” In fact, Rubio supports this view completely.
3. An egregious case of American exceptionalism. It’s surely not the case that a Cuban family who emigrated to the United Kingdom, or Brazil, or Mexico could not have had the same success that Rubio’s parents did. Of course, their community would not have had the same lock on American politics that the Cuban exile community in Florida did, but that’s a part of Rubio’s story that he’s leaving out.
4. I confess myself moved by this as well, with the same caveat as before, adding that Rubio’s probably been running for President since he was six, and has had no other career than that of a professional politician. (It would be churlish to note that Rubio’s bio is a little iffy on actual dates and events, so I won’t do that. But do check out this Obama-worthy and lawyerly parsing of words from Rubio: “The essence of my family story is why they came to America in the first place.” Come on. Family stories aren’t “essences” modulo made up embellishments or tactical choices. Are they?)
4. American Dream Under Threat
My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible:
Hard working families living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster…M1
Young Americans, unable to start a career, a business or a family, because they owe thousands in student loans for degrees that did not lead to jobs…
And small business owners, left to struggle under the weight of more taxes, more regulations and more government.
1 This elegant section combines parallelism with Rubio’s distinctive use of sentence fragments. You may also read this as a list of Rubio’s constituencies: Working class families (interestingly, the phrase “middle class,” so beloved of Democrats, does not appear), youth (Rubio will hit this note much harder shortly), and small business owners.
4. Why the American Dream is Under Threat
Why is this happening in a country that for over two centuries has been defined by equality of opportunity?1
Because while our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century.2.
They are busy looking backward, so they do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy3. So our leaders put us at a disadvantage by taxing, borrowing and regulating like it’s 19994/sup>.
They look for solutions in yesterday, so they don’t see that good-paying modern jobs require different skills5 and more education than the past. They blindly support an outdated higher education system that is too expensive and inaccessible to those who need it most.6
And they have forgotten that when America fails to lead, global chaos inevitably follows, so they appease our enemies, betray our allies and weaken our military7
At the turn of the 19th century8, a generation of Americans harnessed the power of the Industrial Age and transformed this country into the leading economy in the world. And the 20th century became the American Century.
1. Rubio’s first, and only, rhetorical question signals a shift; immediately answering, he will now seek to define his political opponents.
2. Who are these “leaders”? Rubio does not say. Clinton, certainly. But Bush, too!
3. Ridiculous. If there’s anything that our neo-liberal political class, of both parties, is concerned about, it’s
screwing workers however they can in a world-wide race to the bottom “competing in a global economy.”
4. Here is the fundamental contradiction of Rubio’s speech: His appeal is couched in terms of 21st century ideas for the 21st century, but his proposals are the same Republican nostrums we’ve been hearing for years; “taxing, borrowing and regulating” could have been written by Peggy Noonan in the (pre-1999) Reagan era.
5. “Skills mismatch” is not the cause of disemployment, or our rotten labor force participation rate.
6. So what’s the remedy? Debt jubilee and free public education, K-16? If not, what? (Wait, let me guess: Vouchers.)
7. Red meat for the base. One might remember, however, that both Nixon and Reagan, as candidates, conducted their own foreign policies in opposition to elected, sitting Presidents; Nixon, by telling the South Vietnamese to hold out for the better deal they would get from him, and Reagan, with the Iranian hostage release. It’s likely that there will be an October surprise this year, as well; that’s what Cotton, et al., are setting up. Here Rubio positions himself to get a piece of the action.
8. “The turn of the century” being, like all Rubio’s history, personal and otherwise, iffy with respect to actual dates.
5. Generational Transformation
Now, the time has come for our generation1 to lead the way toward a new American Century.
If we2 reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace ObamaCare, the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs.3
If we create a 21st century system of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to work, then our people will be prepared to seize their opportunities in the new economy.
If we remember that family – not government – is the most important institution in society4, that all life deserves protection5, and that all parents deserve to choose the education that’s right for their children6, then we will have a strong people and a strong nation.
And if America accepts the mantle of global leadership, by abandoning this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran, and its hostility to Israel; by reversing the hollowing out of our military; by giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve; by no longer being passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression; and by ending the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world; then our nation will be safer, the world more stable, and our people more prosperous.7
1. American exceptionalism is the first main theme of the speech; “our” (that is, Rubio’s) generation is the second. Partisan devotees of generational politics should consider the logic of this speech carefully. Are candidates really to be preferred because they are aged X instead of X + n years? Or are they to be preferred because the policies they espouse? If the former, is there any essential difference between a Republican Obama and a Democratic one? If the latter, why is age relevant?
2. “If we… If we… If we….” is anaphora.
3. Again, Rubio’s central contradiction as a speaker and a politician. The items on that list that Nooners would not have included are Rubio’s equivocal immigration policies (a “debacle”), and (red meat) abolishing ObamaCare. Abolising ObamaCare is not going to create millions of jobs. If it could, where were those millions of jobs before ObamaCare?
4. Not clear to me how “the family” is going to create millions of jobs, fix student debt, etc.
5. Dog whistle: Abortion.
6. Dog whistle: Charters.
7. See note 7 in the section above; the message is the same.
6. This Election
This election is not just about what laws we will pass. It is a generational choice2 about what kind of country we will be.
Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday2 began a campaign for President by promising to take us back to yesterday.
But yesterday is over, and we are never going back. We Americans3 are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future. Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America.
We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past. We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them4.
1. Hits the second main theme again.
2. That would be Hillary Clinton.
3. Unlike our opponents, who are not real Americans (but betrayers, even traitors).
4. Which is childishly absurd. Changing decision makers but leaving the decision making system in place means the same decisions will be made, especially if incentives remain constant. (At this point we note that Rubio has nothing to say about banks, even though his home state, Florida, was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis.) As we saw by replacing Bush with Obama, whether in surveillance policies, financial regulation, police militarization,
class warfare, and many other policies.
That is why today, grounded by the lessons of our history, and inspired by the promise of our future,
I announce my candidacy for President of the United States of America.
My candidacy might seem improbable to some watching from abroad. In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful. But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.
I recognize the challenges of this campaign, and the demands of the office I seek. But in this endeavor as in all things, I find comfort in the ancient command to, “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”1
I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot. Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as President.
1. A ginormous dog whistle to the Christianist right (which is odd, since Rubio attended a Mormon church when young, before converting to Catholicism). The quote is from Joshua 1:9 (New American Standard translation). Here’s some commentary. The Israelites are about to invade Canaan, and leadership is to be passed from Moses (who will not enter the promised land) to Joshua:
The Commissioning of Joshua (Joshua 1:1-18)
There is a word or theme repeated at least three times in these verses that we need to pick up on and relate to. Three times God tells Joshua, “be strong and courageous” (1:6, 7, 9). Then later, as it pertains to their obedience to God, Joshua will relate the same charge to the people (1:18; 10:25) who will likewise face the challenges and fulfillment of God’s purposes for the nation—dwelling in the land as a priesthood nation as God’s representative to the nations.
So the issue before Joshua was a call to be strong and courageous in view of the mantle of leadership that was being passed on to him. ..
This passage is not just for a special class of leaders like pastors or missionaries. God has called each of us to ministry. No believer is exempt. We are all gifted, we are all priests of God, and leaders in some sense with personal responsibilities to others whether elders, deacons, moms or dads, etc.
So, the passage is a propos in that the transition from Moses to Joshua is like a generational change. The passage is also a commissioning of Rubio’s supporters (his “people”); he’s implicitly requesting them to be responsible to others, much in the way that Obama’s supporters were when they proselytized for their leader. One might well ask who the Moses figure is, if Rubio is Joshua; previous administrations? Clinton? Bush? Reagan? Of course, if you ask questions like that, the gauzy rhetoric dissolves.
7. Personal History (Reprise)
I am humbled by the realization that America doesn’t owe me anything; but I have a debt to America I must try to repay. This isn’t just the country where I was born; America is the place that changed my family’s history.
I regret my father did not live to see this day in person. He used to tell me all the time: En este pais, ustedes van a poder lograr todas las cosas que nosotros no pudimos.
“In this country, you will achieve all the things we never could.”
On days when I am tired or discouraged, I remember the sound of his keys jingling at the front door of our home, often well past midnight, as he returned from another long day at work. When I was younger, I didn’t fully appreciate all he did for us, but now as my own children grow older, I fully understand.
My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children. He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that closed for him to be open for me.1
1. While I don’t believe for a second that Rubio hears his father’s keys every time he’s tired or discouraged, I still find the passage touching. That said, one might wonder whether Rubio’s biography will wear well; what happens after he’s introduced himself to voters? Does he keep running the same schtick? Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has more registers available to her than Rubio does; one of the advantages that comes with age.
7. The Election (Reprise)
My father stood behind a small portable bar in the back of a room for all those years, so that tonight I could stand behind this podium in the front of this room.
That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium, is the essence of the American Dream.
Whether or not we remain a special country will depend on whether that journey is still possible for those trying to make it now:
The single mother1 who works long hours for little pay so her children don’t have to struggle the way she has…
The student who takes two buses before dawn to attend a better school halfway across town…
The workers in our hotel kitchens, the landscaping crews in our neighborhoods, the late-night janitorial staff that clean our offices … and the bartenders who tonight are standing in the back of a room somewhere…
If their American Dreams become impossible, we will have become just another country. But if they succeed, the 21st Century will be another American Century.2 This will be the message of my campaign and the purpose of my presidency.
1. Again, Rubio combines sentence fragments with anaphora: “The single mother… The students… The workers…”
2. Do the workers want “another American century”? Or do they want concrete material benefits in the form of, say, a $15.00 an hour minimum wage?
9. Direct Appeal
To succeed on this journey, I will need your prayers, your support, and ultimately, your vote. Tonight I am asking you to take that first step with me, by joining us at marcorubio.com.1
My wife Jeanette and my four children are here tonight. The next 19 months will take me far from home. I will miss watching Amanda run track, Daniella play volleyball, Anthony play football and Dominick play soccer.
But I have chosen this course because this election is about them. Theirs is the most important generation in American history.2 If we can capture the promise of this new century they will be the freest and most prosperous Americans ever. But if we fail, they will be the first generation of Americans to inherit a country worse off than the one left for their parents.
1. Which I immediately did, only to find a page full of buttons to buy merch. I’ve got to say, I think Clinton’s launch, with the video, was a bit classier, though Rubio’s website is simple and slick.
2. Really? Why?
3. Really? I’d say the (so-called) millenials are worse off, at least those who aren’t trust or hedge fund babies.
The final verdict on our generation will be written by Americans not yet born. Let us make sure they record that we made the right choice. That in the early years of this century, faced with a rapidly changing and uncertain world, our generation rose to face the great challenges of our time.
And because we did1, there was still one place in the world where who you come from does not determine how far you can go.
Because we did, the American miracle lived on.
And because we did, our children and theirs lived in a new American Century.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
1 “Because we did… Because we did… Because we did….”: anaphora once more.
I noticed, toward the end, that my notes got thinner; but I think that’s because the speech got thinner, and Rubio started to repeat himself. A verb, a noun, “American exceptionalism,” and “our g-g-g-g-g-eneration.” Plus conservative nostrums from the Age of Nooners. Is that all there is?
Still, I can see how somebody without much political experience — rather like the 18-year-olds who were captivated by Obama in 2008 — would be captivated by this speech; they actually might think that a phrase like “our generation” is meaningful politically since, after all, so many marketers appeal to them in just those terms.
Readers, what do you think? Especially those of you who were able to bring yourself to watch the Clinton video, “Getting Started,” what do you think?
NOTE Rubio’s pretty short; they better not put him in a tank, like Dukakis.