Romney vs. Clinton: Contrasts of Communication

Were you one of the many pundits and spectators who expected President Barack Obama to lose his bid for reelection to challenger Mitt Romney last week? Reportedly, Governor Romney himself was convinced that he was heading to victory before the Democratic Party’s “Get Out The Vote” initiative produced a landslide of Obama supporters.

The President, of course, ended the campaign with an electoral victory that was almost as statistically significant as his triumph over John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008. Coming on the heels of a brutal four year economic slump, though, some commentators believe that last week’s election was actually the far more impressive political event.

Although President Obama did defeat Governor Romney at the ballot box last week, he did not clearly triumph in the debate halls during the final month of the campaign. In fact, many believe that Governor Romney single handedly saved himself with a rousing performance in his initial debate against the incumbent President.

Nevertheless, Romney may have lost a debate against a different American President, one who has not served in public office for over a decade. It may well have been this other debate that foreshadowed the results of the election itself.

A Bang Up Address

The speech of the campaign that received the most plaudits from both sides of the political aisle was not given by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Instead, it was written and delivered by President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Fred Barnes, the Executive Editor of the conservative news journal The Weekly Standard, referred to Clinton’s speech as a “bang up address … (that) made a stronger case for the president’s reelection than either Obama or his campaign have been able to muster.” He agreed with many other political commentators who praised Clinton’s speech; Barnes was particularly impressed with the former President’s ability to deliver “a speech about facts and … decisions made and outcomes achieved.”

Coming in the midst of a campaign season that distressed many citizens with its emphasis on personal attacks over policy debates, President Clinton’s speech helped make the Convention a dramatic success for the sitting President. In comparison, how did the Republican Party and its standard bearer handle their own communication activities?

Angel in the Policy

In late September, on the iconic CBS News show 60 Minutes, evening anchor Scott Pelley asked Governor Romney for detailed information regarding his plans to reduce government spending. According to Pelley, “You’re asking the American people to hire you as president of the United States. They’d like to hear some specifics … the devil’s in the details, though. What are we talking about — (will you eliminate the income tax) mortgage deduction, (or) the charitable deduction?”

Romney’s response? He said, “the devil’s in the details, (but) the angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.” It was an ambiguous comment that drew Pelley’s retort “You have heard the criticism, I’m sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things, and I wonder if this isn’t precisely one of those things.”

Governor Romney never did provide much detail during the campaign about his budget reduction priorities for the federal government. Charges of vagueness continued to follow him all the way to Election Day.

The contrast in communication methodologies between President Clinton’s approach and Mitt Romney’s strategy was one of the most striking distinctions of the entire campaign. Indeed, it reflected a difference in fundamental policy, one that has recently been “in the news” regarding another major challenge facing American governmental leaders.

Need To Know

Consider, for instance, the challenges that are being confronted by government officials who are continuing to struggle to manage the recovery efforts in response to Hurricane Sandy. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has been praised for his willingness to speak bluntly and honestly about the problems facing his state, even when his comments have praised his political rivals and harmed the prospects of his Republican Party allies.

In contrast, the corporate executives who manage the utility companies that are repairing the region’s electricity infrastructure are being severely criticized for their failures to manage the restoration process and to clearly communicate their repair plans. Their customers are being kept in the dark, both literally and figuratively, about when the firms plan to restore each neighborhood’s power grid.

Although the executives of the utility companies have offered a continuous stream of general commentary about the urgent need for power restoration, officials such as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State have severely criticized them during press conferences. If there is one lesson to be learned from the dominant news stories of the past two weeks — i.e. the stories of Hurricane Sandy and the Presidential election — it may be that detailed specificity during the conveyance of information is a desirable communication policy.