Rhetorical Recap: Kaine debut speech was a workaday wonder

Nominee Debut Speech, Florida International University, Miami FL, July 23 2016

Yesterday the Washington Post ran an essay by Greg Jaffe about the Obama speech most likely to be recited by schoolchildren decades from now. That’s one criterion for a good political address, to be sure.

Another criterion, one of use where I teach at the GWU Graduate School of Political Management, is a speech that effectively advances strategic goals of the here and now.  By that standard, Tim Kaine’s debut as vice-presidential pick on Saturday more than fit the bill.

To begin with, Kaine smiled throughout, the most outward sign of an affable person happy to be engaged in politics and governance as a mode of public service.  He spoke in a crisp conversational tone that matched his sunny visage.

He tackled the campaign tasks at hand with creative brevity and briskness.  I’ve isolated those strategic requisites for analytic purposes, but notice how deftly Kaine fulfills several at once.

Paying tribute to the top of the ticket:

Here’s a tribute to Hillary Clinton with a jab at the opponent: “She does not insult people, she listens to them; what a novel concept, right?”

Here’s a deeper tribute that establishes a bond:

KAINE: “I am a Catholic. And Hillary is a Methodist. And I know that her creed is the same as mine: be of service to one another.  Now, that is a notion that Americans of every moral tradition

[Kaine quietly includes atheists, agnostics, and non-affiliated by choosing “moral” instead of “religious”] believes in, and that is the message Hillary Clinton has taken to heart for her entire life.  For her entire life.”

Introducing himself through his professional life story and core beliefs:

Kaine distinguished himself as “One of only twenty people in US history to serve as a mayor, governor, and Senator.” He wove in this timely account of his family’s achievements in race relations:

KAINE: “We [he and his wife Anne Holton] settled down [in Richmond] and we started a family and we sent our kids to those same public schools that her father [Republican Governor Linwood Holton] had opened up to everybody, including one school that I helped build when I was Mayor that we named after their civil rights hero grandfather.” 

Exhibiting a value-laden common-sense approach to key issues:

Kaine made a case for inclusive immigration reform not as a policy wonk but as a proud American:

KAINE: “Raise your hands if you have been a naturalized citizen.  Thank you for choosing us.  If you have not been to one of those services, it will be one of the most powerful things you have ever seen.  After the oath is take, oftentimes there is an open mic and people say why they have decided, this is why I have become a citizen of the U.S., and [it] will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your face when you hear what people think about the greatness of the United States of America.

“Anybody who loves America this much deserves to be here.”

On gun regulation, Kaine recalled his experiences as Governor in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre:

KAINE: “April 16, 2007, that was the worst day of my life.  It was the worst day of so many people’s lives, and for the parents and loved ones of those kids and professors, that pain never goes away.  Precious 17-year olds, a 70-plus year old who was a Holocaust survivor, [who] could survive the Holocaust, who could survive the Soviet takeover of his country, but who fell victim to gun violence because he blocked the door and told his students to climb out the window as his body was riddled with bullets.  Survived the Holocaust, the Soviet takeover of his country, and fell victim in Virginia to the horror of American gun violence.

“We [he and Clinton] will not rest until we get universal background checks and close the loopholes that put guns in the hands of terrorists, criminals, and those who should not have them.  It is so easy.  Gun owners want it.  NRA members want it.  Americans want it.  I know the NRA.  The headquarters are in my state.  They campaigned against me in every statewide race that I have ever run, but I never lost an election.”

Drawing a favorable contrast between Clinton-Kaine and Trump-Pence:

At the start of his speech Kaine noted that his son was a Marine being sent to Europe to “uphold America’s commitment to our allies,” as opposed to Trump, who not only criticized the US-NATO relationship but the quality of US armed forces and John McCain’s heroism as well.

Later, to engage the audience, he played the most basic of oratorical games:

KAINE: “We are at a university, I can give a test, right?  Three questions to ask yourself.  One, do you want a ‘You’re fired’ president or a ‘You’re hired’ president?

“Question two, do you want a trash-talking president or a bridge-building president?

“And last, OK Florida International, you are 2 for 2: do you want a “Me first” president or a “Kids and families first” president?”

Simple, economical, versatile, memorable.  Kaine won’t run low on opportunities to spin the latest news and opposition rhetoric in terms of these rhetorical questions posing a contrast of presidential character.

Aligning the ticket with a hallowed Democratic president:

In closing Kaine showed where he got his appreciation for plain speaking:

KAINE: “OK, when I was a kid growing up my favorite president was another Kansas City guy, Harry Truman.  Great Democratic president.  And let me tell you something that Harry Truman said that could have been written five minutes ago.  He said it in the late 1940s and it is so well put.  ‘America was not built on fear.  America was built on courage, imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.’

“That is so good.” 

Kaine repeated the line for emphasis, then tied it back to Clinton.

The audience responded throughout the speech with cheers, applause, chanting, and shouts of support.

This was not a speech for the ages.  It just got a difficult job done and made it look and sound easy. 

It was the best speech of the campaign cycle to date.

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