9:10am

Thu June 16, 2011
Opinion

Weekly Standard: Sorry, What Was That?

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

Obamacrats think their man is in trouble because (as usual) he's got "communication problems." He seems to suffer from these all the time, which is odd given that he was elected mainly because of his flair for communicating; given that the queen of England is still, no doubt, enjoying the audio versions of his greatest speeches which he presented to her a couple of years ago (unless she's memorized them by now and no longer needs the royal iPod). And now this formidable speaker can't even make himself understood? Probably he is over our heads. But his difficulties are no excuse for Republicans not to speak clearly.

When the Republican Jane Corwin got beaten in the special congressional election in New York's conservative 26th district, the word was that she hadn't explained Paul Ryan's budget clearly enough. She'd let her opponent create the impression that Republicans hated Medicare (if not old people in general) and planned to destroy it as soon as no one was looking.

But I'm not sure Ryan himself has explained his plan clearly enough. This topic demands perfect clarity: Anyone who talks about financial or economic plans starts with two strikes against him. This week, Republicans believe the 2012 election will hinge on unemployment; last week they had a different theory. In any case, they will never succeed in changing the national trajectory unless they can make themselves understood.

Medicare seems to be dying, bleeding to death. It's easy and natural to turn away from this grim spectacle—especially when the Democrats are urging us to do exactly that. (They're probably thinking, "Let's just win one more presidential election, and then we'll fix the problem." For Democrats and some Republicans, giving up spending is like giving up smoking, only harder; it almost seems easier to die of lung cancer.)

But a nation that is serious, and not expecting other countries to step in and bail it out, can't look away. Reactionary, status-quo liberalism has never been more dangerous. Ryan Republicans want to step in and save Medicare; Democrats are willing to stand aside and let it bleed and die.

If Ryan and other thoughtful Republicans believe this, they ought to say it.

Whether or not he runs for president, Paul Ryan is central to Republican plans for governing. He owes it to the nation to speak clearly. That doesn't mean talking down to the public. It means refusing to dash from cliché to cliché as if you were ducking under awnings in a rainstorm; it means venturing out, instead, into the bright sunshine of the glorious English language and taking the trouble to say precisely and vividly what you mean.

In Ryan's recent speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, he introduced his topic by saying, "I'll come to the point. Despite talk of a recovery, the economy is badly underperforming."

No matter what audience is in the theater, Ryan is addressing the nation and should speak as if he knows it. "The economy is badly underperforming" is not coming to the point. It's just tired jargon. Jargon and -clichés are boring. Each cliché or jargon phrase makes the audience tune down its attention just a little, and the effect is cumulative.

"People are out of work and the economy is struggling: It should be back on its feet by now but it can barely sit up, much less stand"—that's coming to the point. (And there's no need to say, "I'll come to the point." Just come to it.)

But there's a more basic problem for Republicans. They want to fix the debt and get the economy moving. The two goals are connected: Less government spending will help the economy and create jobs. But how? And why do we care so much about debt anyway? Ryan and other Republicans give different answers at different times, sometimes in the same speech. No doubt the various answers are all correct. But anyone who suggests many valid answers to one question must take the trouble to explain his strategy first. If you have a point, just say it, but if you have three equally valid answers to one question, explain that fact at the start to avoid confusion.

In April, Ryan did a Republican radio address about his budget proposal. The budget must be reformed, he explained, "because it is unconscionable to leave the next generation with a crushing burden of debt and a nation in decline."

A few sentences later, the budget must be reformed because, "by removing the anchor of debt that weighs down our economy and advancing pro-growth tax reforms, this budget [Ryan's proposal] is a jobs budget."

And a few sentences later, "Each day that Congress fails to act, the government takes one step closer to breaking its promises to current retirees."

Which is it? A problem of conscience, of economic growth, or of Medicare's running out of money? Since the answer is "all three," the speaker ought to say so up front: "Our demented spending binge has caused many problems, and here are three."

Ryan also said, "Each year that policymakers kick this can down the road means trillions of dollars in empty promises are being made to future generations." And, the president's budget proposal would "raise taxes by $1.5 trillion."

But "trillions" is meaningless without something to measure by. It's simpler to say: The president's February budget projected a national debt bigger than the whole U.S. economy ($15 trillion). Or pick some other measuring stick. However tiresome it might be, you must pick a comparison and repeat it every time you write or speak: Very few people keep figures of this magnitude in mind. Can you blame them? They are way outside normal experience.

And I promise every politician and commentator in the country: If I hear "kick the can down the road" one more time, I tune out forever and move to Tahiti.

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