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Grant Barrett On The Presidential Debate And Debaters

October 3, 2012 1:10 p.m.


Grant Barrett, co-host, public radio's "A Way With Words"

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. With the first crucial presidential debate coming up tonight, all ears are tuned to how skillfully the candidates can communicate their message in a way that appeals to the most people and touches them, not just logically and intellectually, but also more deeply at the values level. There's a theory that the language of the Right in the last few years has been more effective than the language of the Left in terms of values. Have they learned to articulate their own moral high ground and depth of commitment? Here to talk about language is our guest, Grant Barrett of a way with boards. Welcome.

BARRETT: How you doing?

ST. JOHN: Doing good. And I will mention that you guys have a new time on Saturday at 4:00, right?

BARRETT: Right. Right after marketplace money.

ST. JOHN: Be sure and tune into them then. So definitely the perfect guest for this segment. What trends would you say you've noticed in political speech in the past couple of years? Have there been any changes since the last election?

BARRETT: Well, we saw the trends in 2008 that have continued and grown in 2012. For example, we saw the rise of partisanship. It's been ongoing for decades Burk we saw it focus its efforts. We've also seen the political bubbles strengthen. So it's very easy to stay in a sphere of media where you don't find your beliefs threatened or punctured by hearing somebody who disagrees with you. There are some arenas where that takes place. Facebook and social media might mean that you are friends with somebody who shares a different political philosophy. But for the most part, that is strengthening. And this means it follows up to the national level where the big political campaigns, let's say for Congress or the presidency, they are fairly confident of their base. They know they're going to get these core voters. So they are arguing in this tiny space, this narrow, thin margin of these undecided voters or persuadable voters. And they're not also the same category. And because the stakes are so high, and yet the prospect so slim, they become aggressive, they become negative, and they fight even harder.

ST. JOHN: Do you think that some of the terms that are being used are a lot more violent these days? Like the term baby killers and death panels? Do these terms actually shape people's idea of reality do you think by constantly using them? Do they conjure up pictures in people's heads?

BARRETT: This is exactly what's happening. If you go back and you look at the debates between Regan and Carter, it looks almost like a high school election. It is in a way, childish. Some of the practiced kind of effort that we've made to develop these -- these sub rosa themes in order to get a point across without explicitly saying it, those were in development then but are not as refined as now. They're called dog whistle terms. The running we use that signals to a certain constituency that we're on their side. If I'm a candidate and you mire audience, I have in front of me multiple constituencies, women, men, young, old, people of different races and so forth. I have fence-sitters in front of me. And what I need to do in order to convince you is say things like well, we've all got to work hard! That is a dog whistle expression, which I am saying without saying it, I agree that there are many lazy people who are living off the government. Or I can say things like, you know, and vouchers are the way of the future! What I'm suggesting here is that governments should get out of education. So we use these shorthand terms as a proxy for a larger message that winks at an audience and says "Hey, I'm right there with ya, buddy," without having to say it.

ST. JOHN: In terms of tonight's debate, how would you describe the abilities for oratory of President Obama and Mitt Romney?

BARRETT: Well, President Obama is well known as a great oratory. But this is when he has a great speech. He has an audience there to hear him, a Teleprompter, a speech he's practiced, co-written or written in full, and he's remarkable. He's very good. I think of -- there are very few orators in the last few years who can match his skill in that position. Where he does not fair well is in an interview situation. He tends to fall down with disfluencies in his own speech, he says umm, or I mean, or I know, and has a problem getting it out. In a recent interview with David Letterman, he was comfortable, even relaxed. That's good, but he didn't have that presence as a president because he just didn't really -- he couldn't just nail his message. Romney's got another thing happening. He is very interested in showing you that he is your buddy and delivering these zingers. But he behaves a little more like a standup comedian. So he delivers pretty much a zinger or a callout line once a minute or so. He says something to make you laugh, think, every minute or two. And he builds in you ideally an overall agreement as you go, oh, yeah, I agree with you, oh, he's funny, oh, I agree with that. And by the end of his speech, you've accumulated all these positive agreement responses that mean maybe you'll vote for him.

ST. JOHN: But that's in a speech situation.


ST. JOHN: If you're in a debate situation, how does that work?

BARRETT: Well, we've all been reading the same articles about how the two camps are preparing for this debate. This debate is superexciting because we have a very close race. If you care about politics at all. If you don't, you're probably not listening. If you care about mix, you want to know what they're doing to prepare. And there's all this pregaming going on. You prepare yourself for what you think the opponent will say, and you prepare for their preparing for what they think you're going to say. It's complicated. And Romney has been preparing supposedly, lots of zingers. He's been practicing them, and saving them up, and trying not to deliver them on the stump. So he's not giving them away.

ST. JOHN: Is that the same thing as dog whistle terms?

BARRETT: No, a zinger is -- he did this in the debates -- the Republican candidate debates. He upset Newt Gingrich by throwing something out there by Gingrich's investments in Freddie Mac. It's a line that says I be something about you that you're not prepared to talk about, I'm trying to unsettle you. Will so he's got a whole slew of these prepared. Will but President Obama is calm, cool, and collected.

ST. JOHN: So Romney is the king of zingers. What do you think might use the most dog whistle terms?

BARRETT: Both do it. You have to do it. It's Thanksgiving dinner, you're sitting down with extended family and friends, there's 15-30 people around, what's happening? There are multiple conversations, not just one. And you're paying attention to the conversation that you need to pay attention to because you enjoy it, right? This is what we're going to see a lot of at the debate. We're going to see these two candidates presenting themselves to audiences that already like them and ignoring the questions. There's always a certain amount of that. They will just ignore the question, stick to message, stick to focussing on the things they think will help them persuade that slim number of people who might be persuaded.

ST. JOHN: Let's talk about the theory that the conservatives seem to have been better at framing the politician discussion. Do you think that's true?

BARRETT: It has traditionally been true. In a campaign by campaign count, we can find examples where the left does it better than the right. In general, what I see here, when I look at this discourse is it's very easy to say no. And I believe that the right generally is about reducing the role of government and generally about returning rights to individuals, to corporations, and to the states. And what that means, a lot of their argument no, we don't need that program no, we don't need that much money, no, we don't need X. So that means the left is continuously put in a defensive mode having to support and defend each one of these cases, one by one, where the right is just saying, no, we don't need this. And the left is going, well, the reason we have this bureau of land management program is because of blah blah blah. You can't help but be on the defensive if you constantly have to point by point defend every single program that you believe should exist.

ST. JOHN: And Romney just did that recently, are didn't he, by accusing Obama of apologizing for the video that sparked all that violence and put the president on the defensive. So that's a tactic.

BARRETT: It's a great tactic. And it means that Obama has to assume that you know what he's talking about. In order to explain his defense, he has to explain the situation. Suddenly he's got this professorial response that's long and drawn out, and the question is why get mired in it at all? He can't not respond. He has to respond.

ST. JOHN: What about this idea that the democratic side has been not good at getting at the morals, the values, the more emotional, deeper themes?

BARRETT: Via torn response to this. The left is traditionally seen as fighting amongst itself. It has a lot of constituencies loosely collaborating together to consider themselves a progressive movement. Part of the problem seems to be that they do fight amongst themselves. They cannot present this one message unity platform until they've finally chosen a candidate. When they have a candidate, they basically have the camp on the left that says well, he didn't do everything he promise, and the other camp that says well, he's not done yet. Sometimes we're arguing with this so fine a space, and it's particularly when we come to bullet issues. These are the issues where you'll say I'm only going to pull the lever -- do you have levers in San Diego?

ST. JOHN: I don't think so.

BARRETT: Well, in New York they did.


BARRETT: When you push the button or fill out the slot for a candidate, you're going to do it because they have the same stance as you on abortion or gun control. Or they're willing to put money in education and take it away from something else. So the left is more about arguing, like, well, I agree with everything he's got to say except for this one thing, so I'm not going to vote for him. Or I won't vote at all, which is the worst case for the candidate on the left.

ST. JOHN: What about the idea that the right has coopted the term family values, which flies that the left doesn't have any?

BARRETT: There's an old joke, if you put the name America in anything, people are going to assume that you're conservative. And there are these patterns of naming, programs and institutions and pacs and superpac that you can almost immediately tell what they represent. Family values is a skunk term. It only means this one conservative point of view.

ST. JOHN: Another word that's changed its meaning is compromise. That used to be a good word.

BARRETT: If you go back to the period between the first two world wars, Winston Churchill wrote about this, he talked about this problem of these uncompromising politicians believed that's what their constituencies wanted. You've got a government fluctuating in and out, parliament is constantly changing, and if you can be seen as adamant, you'll get the vote. And that's what's happening here. If you're adamant, you get more votes. There is unfortunately in modern politics, not a lot of room for nuance. It just doesn't fly. We are not reading long treatises by Thomas pain to decide how to vote.

ST. JOHN: This word socialist that is being applied to people who would have been seen as moderate in terms of political position, and it's kind of like an extreme position has become --

BARRETT: Right. It's all relative to your time and your place and your location and who you're talking about. Upon I live in San Diego now. I used to live in New York. By New York City's standard, this is a highly conservative place. Yet I grew up in Missouri. By Missouri's standard, San Diego is like Commie liberal Pinko Town. Socialist is also a skunk term. Will we can't use it anymore. You will never have a political party in America who uses that term again. If you're talking about the national level, I think it's 50-50. If you're talking about the state and local level, the Republican ends are far out in front. They tend to have a lot more money on the antitax front. You have this wide array of organizations that believe that parks should be funded and schools should be funded and so forth. So they're diverse. On the left to say no to tax just takes one group, one voice, one message. So that's on the local level. The right is far better about things like that.

ST. JOHN: I notice the word revenue has cropped up as an alternative.


ST. JOHN: It's so interesting the way that words carry such weight, isn't it? And so many connotations. Even the word government seems different in different people's mouths.

BARRETT: Yes, certainly. Government can be said with a certain amount of scorn and spit.

ST. JOHN: What about in issue of negative ads? What's your take on why it is they work and there's so much more aggressive language being used now?

BARRETT: Well, what I've read about these ads, when they have been studied from a linguistic perspective, is that political ads work because there is that tiny number of people who haven't been keeping up with the news, want to keep up with the news, and they get their news from these political ads. So you put scary music in there and a sheep with bright red eyes, and they're persuaded the candidate is bad. And that's what they'll remember. Really simple messages delivered with I high dramatic value and big emotional content, totally works every time.

ST. JOHN: Do you think we should expect a lot of debating tonight? Is it going to be vitriolic? What kind of dog whistle words?

BARRETT: I think Barack Obama will stay completely calm and cool. You may get an eye-raise out of him, that's about it. And I think that Romney is going to dance around him like a brand-new candidate that he is who's got a chance to take the title belt. He's just going to do all the dancing that he can.

ST. JOHN: Another image of a boxing ring. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

BARRETT: My pleasure.