As a communication scholar, I believe there are those moments when it is instructive to bracket our partisan views in favor of analyzing the rhetorical strategies and messages of political candidates. Doing so might help us understand why some politicians are persuasive and others aren’t.
Consider a very recent example. Watching last Monday’s CNN town hall, I became even more intrigued by Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s unique rhetorical style. While his discourse is reminiscent of the positive and hopeful demeanor of President Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, not to mention echoing their faith in America’s great political experiment, there is something far more distinctive about Buttigieg’s message — something that transcends his political ideology.
The best way to make this case is to reflect upon Buttigieg’s response to ongoing allegations by pundits that he fails to offer enough specific policy proposals to separate him from the rest of the Democratic field. Rather than being defensive or advocating that one’s policy positions are a litmus test for one’s fitness to be elected, Buttigieg’s message implies that a President is an executive, not a legislator or policy wonk.
Why is this significant?
Most political observers agree that a presidential candidate should have a deep knowledge of the domestic and foreign policy issues facing the nation, as well as an overall philosophy about how to address these issues. Clearly Buttigieg does. Yet he also recognizes that perhaps the most important attribute of an effective chief executive is possessing a philosophy — and record — of leadership demonstrating an ability to be flexible enough to change one’s mind, work collaboratively with those who disagree, and get things done especially at the local level.
But this is just one example documenting Buttigieg’s unique rhetoric.
Unlike typical presidential campaigns against an incumbent, arguably the 2020 race may buck historical norms and traditional campaign strategies. Buttigieg seems to be cognizant of this. His rhetoric — perhaps more than other Democratic candidates — reflects a keen awareness and political shrewdness that from a message standpoint 2020 must not become primarily an anti-Trump election. To his credit, Buttigieg resists a natural, knee-jerk tendency to become negative and take on the President at every turn.
In fact, Buttigieg rarely mentions Donald Trump’s name and infrequently launches direct attacks against him — all of which would play directly into Trump’s rhetorical playbook, motivate his base and turn off undecided voters who are tired of politics as usual.
To be clear, what I am contending does not constitute an endorsement of Buttigieg; I do not yet have a preference and want to learn more about the other presidential aspirants. However, as a professor of rhetoric who studies messages, I do believe Buttigieg might be that once-in-a-lifetime presidential candidate who enters the scene at precisely the right moment with a potentially persuasive, positive, and bipartisan message — a message avoiding attack and calling for genuine change to extricate the country from a dangerous time in history.
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• Richardt Cherwitz is a professor in the Moody College of Communication and founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. He grew up in Davenport and is a graduate of the University of Iowa.