Death to the Stump Speech

Image result for stump speechThroughout 2016 the presidential candidates who were not Donald Trump complained to Jeffrey Zucker.

“You showed hours upon hours of unfiltered, unscrutinized coverage of Trump!” Todd Harris, an advisor to Senator Marco Rubio, shouted at the head of CNN during a panel discussion after the election. “CNN helped make [Trump] by carrying every speech he made in the primary season,” added Larry King, the former CNN anchorman. “It was almost like the other guys didn’t exist.”

In the general election accusations of pro-Trump favoritism at CNN continued from Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” Zucker ultimately confessed. “Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on the air.” Hell, Trump probably didn’t know what he was going to say before he arrived at each podium.

He winged it, riffed off his audience, ran off at the mouth and scrammed before the country knew what hit it.

Trump rallies are freeform jazz. Anything can happen. Quality varies but give the president this: no two performances are the same. “Trump was simply more entertaining and generating more passion,” recalled David Sillito, media reporter for the BBC.

While Trump delivered the extemporaneous devil-may-care thrills of a candidate who doesn’t expect to win, Clinton and Trump’s primary opponents dutifully trudged the land delivering that deadliest of ought-to-be-deceased propaganda formats: the stump speech.

There was Hillary reading from a Teleprompter in Columbus, every word scrupulously stripped of life by her army of staffers, consultants and attorneys. There she was again in Atlanta: same words, same cadences, same gestures and facial expressions. Tune in, tune off. You can hardly blame CNN for skipping some of those cut-and-pasters—to do otherwise would have violated viewers’ human rights.

Stump speeches go back to the early 1800s. Politicians made their way from town to town, first on horseback and then by train, where they delivered the same speech while standing atop a sawed-off tree stump because many areas were freshly cleared forests.

Radio, television and the Internet have revolutionized communication. The last presidential election, in which ad lib shockingly defeated inevitability, demonstrated the obsolescence of the stump speech. Yet this boring tradition endures.

On April 29th former vice president and presidential wannabe-come-lately Joe Biden unleashed his stump speech in Pittsburgh. “There was a $2 trillion tax cut last year. Did you feel it?” Biden asked a group of unionists. “No!” the unionists replied.

“Of course not!” Biden said.

Repetition in Des Moines and Akron and Buffalo and Knoxville will not make this exchange more exciting.

All the major Democratic presidential candidates rely on stump speeches. Introductions are modified to acknowledge local officials in attendance. Sections are dropped to adjust to tight schedules. Location determines the insertion or deletion of certain lines. But the basic structure is the same whether you’re in Dubuque or Decatur. It’s easy to see the appeal of the stump speech. Why pay for a hundred speeches when you can make do with one? Why risk gaffes when you can massage and road-test a veteran rallier?

The Associated Press described the drill in 2016: “Day after day, the candidates for president wake up, brush their teeth and pump themselves up to say the same thing they did yesterday. Most of what they say won’t make the evening news, or get tweeted or repeated. But that spiel they repeat, with variations, to audience after audience in state after state, is a campaign essential.”

What they’re missing is why it won’t make the news. By definition, repetition is not news.

Trump repeatedly made the news by repeatedly saying something new.

Campaigns that still rely on stump speeches are pretending that technology doesn’t exist. It’s impressive when Bernie Sanders talks to 20,000 people. But his real audience isn’t there. A limitless crowd, millions of voters perhaps—is watching on cable news and/or online. But networks won’t carry his rally unless it might break news. A stump speech can’t do that. Even diehard Berners won’t bother to livestream if they see pretty much the same event each time. Been there, saw that, next.

Today’s Democratic stumpers might want to take a cue from the stump speeches of the 19th century, which were actually vibrant and spontaneous expressions of frontier life.

“Refined politicians in the cities may have looked down on stump speeches,” writes history writer Robert McNamara. “But out in the countryside, and especially along the frontier, stump speeches were appreciated for their rough and rustic character. They were free-wheeling performances that were different in content and tone from the more polite and sophisticated political discourse heard in the cities.” America’s first politicians shot brutal insults; audiences rewarded the most outrageous slurs with their votes.

There’s a reason Trump looks uncomfortable reading from a script. He prefers to rock it old school.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

6 thoughts on “Death to the Stump Speech

  1. A minor (but I think somewhat important) point that requires a Game of Thrones reference and a Veep reference.
    SPOILER ALERT–Be up to date on Game of Thrones or go no further.

    In the recent Game of Thrones episode, a lot of the fans went frickin’ nuts because Arya Stark (aka Donald Trump) beat the Night King and won the war (aka the debates). That’s right. Arya, who had a uniquely qualifying set of skills (learned over years of experience and training) sneaked up on that ice-cold so and so and put a blade right in his heart. No fuss, no muss, no snappy one-liners before sticking the Night King with the pointy end of a Valyrian steel dagger. That’s how she won the war and how Trump won the election.

    But Trump didn’t win just because he could improvise. He won because Hillary Clinton (best friends with a war criminal called Henry Kissinger) could NOT improvise.

    A recent episode of “Veep” had Selina Meyer actually being genuine in public during a debate against a young woman (whose gimmick in the episode is that she starts almost every speech with “as a woman, and as a woman of color”). Meyer finally reaches her breaking point and says “When I was coming up as a lawyer, I didn’t have to remind everyone I was a woman every ten seconds because they never let me forget it. I smiled all through the casual grabbing of my behind and all the secret meetings on the golf course that I wasn’t invited to. So how about giving a little thanks to the women like me who built the ladder that you use to get up onto your soapbox?”

    It’s a funny scene, but it’s also sad because, watching it, I realized that in all the footage I’ve seen of Hillary Clinton talking, I have never seen her simply be honestly angry, honestly outraged. It’s always a mask and a calculation. THAT is why Donald Trump beat her at the debates and went on to beat her at the Electoral College-decided general election. He was up against a wooden, uninteresting candidate who flip-flopped all the way through her career and couldn’t access any genuine emotional core when she needed it.

    And Trump (who I am no fan of, by the way) is now being hounded by the New York Times which has dug up his tax returns (or something like them) from 25 years ago. Dear God. I hope the Times has the returns from after that because the one thing that would really put the blade in all the way to the handle would be if Trump’s recent tax returns show that he’s made a fortune.

    But the media, the dems, and all the rest need to take a page from Sanders. You don’t have to like Trump, but he sure as hell knows how to control the narrative. And if you can’t manufacture some genuine outrage, you are going to lose, lose, lose.

    • I saw HRC on a YT video once coming close to actual, genuine outrage.

      She was warning Russia and China that they “would pay the price”*** for having the unmitigated nerve to horn-in on OUR (effin’) war in Syria.

      It seems she is quite excited (much like Cheney) by bring death to others … wrought by anything from shiv up rectum to economic “austerity measures.”

      *** and within said stump speeches, we are continuously assaulted, annoyed and abused by the same hackneyed cliches of political nothing-burgerism.

  2. Maybe the Joe (-mentum II) Biden stump speech would be livened up if, at the moment he acts like he’s concerned with tax breaks for the wealthy, someone from the audience asks why he didn’t convince Obumma to just let the Bush tax cut expire at the end of 2010 … instead of compelling the Dem-controlled (for a few weeks) lame-duck congress to take action to preserve the cuts.

    Then the follow-up question: “Was it your idea to then have Obumma sanctimoniously promise that he would ‘fight very hard’ to rescind the very tax cuts he had just made permanent for Bush.”

    Hey, Joe, where are you going with that foot in your mouth?

  3. Warren is shifting this at least a little. She actually has something new and specific and useful to talk about every week. Not sure how long she can keep that up, but after a while she could at least rotate and keep some genuine, you know, like…mental activity…thinking, even!…in the mix.

  4. That’s a toughie, I propose a somewhat different approach.

    That is: candidates must write their own speeches. A politician needs to speak convincingly, extemporaneously, and most of all he must speak his heart. I wanna hear his words and weigh his heart. Reading a script prepared by a focus group while in front of a camera just doesn’t cut it.

    The downside – to which Ted alludes – is that can open up a tent revival atmosphere where a skilled shaman (errr “showman”) can whip the crowd up into a frenzy. But then, if the voters are so easily manipulated, then maybe they deserve what they get.

    But the rest of us don’t … :: whimper ::

  5. “There was a $2 trillion tax cut last year. Did you feel it?” Biden asked a group of unionists. “No!” the unionists replied.

    “Of course not!” Biden said.

    It’s hard to make a pitch if you have nothing to pitch.


    “There was a $20 trillion bank bail out a few years back. Did you feel it?” Biden asked a group of ex-home owners . “No!” they replied.

    “Of course not!” Biden said. That’s not for you saps. That’s for Wall Street bonuses.