Many saw Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s defeat of six-term incumbent
Richard Lugar in last week’s Indiana GOP primary as another sign of the death of bipartisanship. Lugar was known for his willingness to work across party lines, while Mourdock caters to the Tea Party crowd. Pundits believe that Mourdock may yet play a central role in the Republican effort to take control of the Senate. But Mourdock may have a tough time winning a Senate seat unless he abandons the Tea Party’s “No compromises” rhetoric.
In interviews with The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and local papers, Mourdock has pulled no punches. “The time for collegiality has passed. It’s time for confrontation,” he has said. “I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. […] Bipartisanship means they have to come our way […] To me, the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else with a microphone or in front of a camera.”
This rhetorical strategy has proved popular with Tea Party candidates intent on venting political frustrations and firing up like-minded voters. But Mourdock’s bombast violates the three most time-honored canons of verbal rhetoric, and it won’t appeal to mainstream voters.
First, to be persuasive over time, a speaker must project credibility, or what the classical Greek orators called ethos. Credibility is about commanding respect and trust by showing balance, judgment and calm. Mourdock has taken the opposite approach: His charges are jarring, designed to appeal only to his steadfast followers. Mourdock himself said in a recent TV interview that 60 percent of voters do not identify themselves as conservatives at all. Despite the weakness of his “my way or the highway” approach, Mourdock promises conflict over calm. This mismatch of reality and speaking style hurts the Republican’s credibility.
Second, a speaker must strike an emotional chord with his audience (pathos). But if the speaker attempts to incite feelings of hatred or anger, audience members who are not yet persuaded will mistrust this manipulation. Similarly, if the speaker appears to be in the grip of his own, overwhelming emotion, then his judgment appears clouded. Mourdock commits both of these errors. Language this outsized conjures up the specter of a speaker and an audience out of control. It may motivate hardline primary voters, but it will likely harm Mourdock’s attempts to appeal to the middle.
Third, advocates must pass the test of common sense (logos). They must provide facts and
logic to support their positions. Mourdock does neither. Very few voters believe we need more gridlock in Congress. The public’s approval of legislators is barely in double digits, and polls attest to Americans’ overwhelming dissatisfaction with bipartisan acrimony and the resulting legislative gridlock. Under Mourdock’s warped logic, this problem is the solution.
Mourdock has said his campaign is about two central goals: limited government and less federal spending. These goals have been obscured by Mourdock’s rhetoric of confrontation, but he can still salvage his message by following the classical rules for public speaking:
We face urgent problems. I intend to devote my full energy to helping make progress on all of them. I hope Americans of all political stripes will join in this effort. But solutions cannot come at the price of sacrificing cherished values and principles. Mine include two first and foremost: We must reign in the size and power of the federal government; and we cannot continue to spend more than, by any rational view, we can afford.
That’s the kind of message that will make Mourdock appear more credible to mainstream voters.