Assessing the (Current) Recall Challengers’ Public Speaking

As I write, there are three declared challengers to Gov. Walker, should there be (as there will be, really) a gubernatorial recall race. More will enter, but for now it’s Kathleen Falk, Hari Trevedi, and Kathleen Vinehout. I’ll consider their presentations at the challenger-friendly Fourth Annual Grassroots Fest Candidate Forum held February 18, 2012 in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has a long progressive tradition – there’s more than one left-leaning forum like this during a year.

(Although he’s not a declared candidate, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca also spoke, and I’ll assess his presentation, too.)

Below I offer an assessment of each candidate’s presentation, how one should debate against that candidate, and how the candidate should adjust to that debating style.

I well-know that there may never be debates between Gov. Walker and a recall opponent. I’m not sure I would advise him to debate a challenger; depending on the opponent it may be unnecessary. Walker should only do those things that produce a net gain, or prevent an unacceptable net loss. If the Left decries Walker’s unwillingness to debate, but debating offers no net gain and declining offers no unacceptable net loss, then Walker’s better off not debating.

Because Wisconsin’s electorate is so divided, with each side having a solid and approximately equal base of diehard supporters, there simply aren’t a lot of voters to win over. Neither side need worry about the other side’s fury, absent the influence that fury might have on a much smaller number of persuadable voters.

In any event, I’m a libertarian (and member of the Libertarian Party) – an assessment of these candidates comes without partisan support for either the Republican or Democratic parties. This critique is straightforward, and free of a party-line agenda.

Peter Barca, from 1:16 to 11:20 on the video.

Presentation. Smart, educated, professorial. It’s telling that Barca speaks to the audience on a computer monitor via Skype. (He speaks from a script, either memorized or written and hidden off-screen.) It’s not a conversational style; it’s a fast-paced speech delivered via a live video feed.

The medium says much about Barca. He’s savvy enough to use Skype, but speaking to activists this way, however unavoidable, only accentuates his lack of intimacy with an audience. He surely knows what to say, and has been ever-present with protesters over the last year, but he’s just not stirring. Barca would do better sitting across a table from an opponent than standing behind a lectern, where he would seem stiffer. (For a previous assessment of Barca, in-person, see On Occupy Whitewater, 11.17.11.)

How to Debate Barca. Speak a bit more slowly than he does, add a bit more informality than his own scripted or rehearsed style, and respond to him directly, point-by-point. Throw out a pithy and caustic remark now and again, to see if he might be baited into indignation. A bit of condescension toward Barca wouldn’t hurt – emphasizing how his worry about dividing Wisconsin is flowery rhetoric that ignores the state’s dire plight.

How Barca Should Adjust His Presentation. Slow down, speak with the semblance of the extemporaneous, even if his remarks are prepared. Emphasize concrete statistics that show Wisconsin’s going in the wrong direction – talk about divisiveness alone is too vague for uncertain but persuadable voters.

Kathleen Falk, from 11:35 to 20:42 on the video.

Presentation. Falk’s a well-educated, competent, attractive professional. She’s almost superfluously educated — the moderator of the candidate forum flubs a recitation of Falk’s blue-chip education, as neither Stanford nor Harvard are common destinations for Wisconsinites. The UW system is the envy of many, and schooling outside Wisconsin is uncommon.

She’s attractive and positive, and moderate in her tone. Although Team Walker has and would depict her as an extreme liberal, she seems nothing of the kind. She’s not a strong speaker – even in this audience of progressives, she hits some high notes, but mostly receives polite applause. Her cadence is off, and she doesn’t emphasize critical words or phrases when speaking.

That’s a real problem – I’d guess she’s better in negotiations and across-the-table settings than on the stump.

There’s a discernible impediment in her speech that makes her seem older than she is. It’s harsh to say, but the third-party advertising she’d face in a head-to-head campaign against Gov. Walker will make harsh seem mild.

What awaits a Democrat? An opposing campaign committed to sucking the very air out of his or her lungs. There’s no mild, well-meaning way to respond to that no-holds-barred approach.

Her intellect is not in question – her ability to deliver a passionate speech is. (It’s not that Walker’s a good speaker — he’s not — it’s that many on the left will expect their champion to be energetic and charismatic.)

How to Debate Falk. Engage the audience with epigrams and pithy remarks. Display vigor in contrast to her reserved style. She’s a woman of around sixty, and she seems her age. Pretty, but visibly older. Grapple with her remarks, disputing them directly, and thereafter cast her as someone of the past, of an old-line approach.

How Falk Should Adjust Her Presentation. She needs, but will not be able to acquire in time, a better speaking style. Her campaign should write punchier copy for her, have her deliver those remarks in controlled settings, make her campaign commercials sharp and pointed, and see that she dresses elegantly.

She’s not of a common background (she has to reach backward two generations to claim one). Traditionally, two generations’ time is nothing, but it seems like forever to many people of this generation, who are struggling right now, as their parents are, too.

Her campaign team stumbled on the defensive over her union endorsements, and they’re not presenting her in the best light now. She’s the endorsed and established candidate of the left, and she should assume that role.

Despite so much organizational support, she’s a tepid candidate.

Hari Trevedi, from 21:20 to 26:50 on the video.

Presentation. He’s an unknown, independent candidate, well-meaning but lacking any rapport with the audience. Neither they nor many others have ever heard of him. He’s a physician, in a world where few physicians succeed in politics (Ron Paul being a notable exception). They don’t succeed because bedside manner isn’t a campaign style; reassuring a sick person is nothing like reassuring sick-and-tired voters.

How to Debate Trevedi. Be polite. Emphasize his lack of experience, and the oddly disconnected, somewhat airy theories he espouses. If Falk doesn’t seem grass-roots enough, Trevedi seems worse: like someone whose ideas for helping Wisconsin came straight from The Economist, or a wealthy, liberal columnist at the pages of Fortune.

How Trevedi Should Adjust His Presentation. Spend time speaking with ordinary people, run for a more modest office. His problem is apparent unfamiliarity; he’ll not be able to change for this race.

Kathleen Vinehout, from 27:00 to end of the video.

Presentation. Vinehout is as educated as the others at the forum (she’s a PhD.), but she’s easily the most relaxed, formidable of these candidates. The audience connects with her immediately, and she presents anecdotes smoothly and engagingly.

She has a solid, energetic demeanor – so much more than Falk that Falk’s campaign should never put the two on the same stage together. I would defy anyone to watch Falk and Vinehout’s presentations and not conclude that Vinehout is by far the more magnetic candidate.

She wows this crowd; I have no doubt that a more moderate version of her delivery would be effective with independents.

How to Debate Vinehout. Sometimes the most formidable opponent is the best one to face – a challenging debate makes for a fun time. Vinehout is formidable in her manner: confident, articulate, inspiring, light-hearted. She’d easily be the toughest of these four to face.

Gov. Walker would do poorly in a debate with Vinehout. He’s dour and she’s jovial. But the way to debate Vinehout is to match her style, and respond with a similar gusto and enthusiasm. If I were to pick one person to debate from among these four, she’d be the hardest – and yet most fun – to face.

How Vinehout Should Adjust Her Presentation. No need for major adjustments – she’s comfortably familiar in appearance, and exceptional in delivery. There’s a slight hoarseness in her voice that suggests she would benefit from a lozenge to keep her throat from getting dry. Slight hoarseness, though, is not an impediment – on the contrary, it suggests hard work and long hours.

I doubt the Democrats will pick Vinehout. But if they’re looking for an engaging speaker, Vinehout should at the top of their list.

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