Thursday, September 02, 2004

Attacks, Direct and Disguised

I was intrigued by the difference in headline news coverage given to the Dick Cheney speech Wednesday at the GOP convention and that afforded to the John Edwards speech a month before. Edwards, we are told, spoke of "hope," while Cheney's words "attacked" "assailed," or "bashed" John Kerry. Edwards himself said Cheney's speech (and Zell Miller's) displayed a lot of "hate" and "anger."

Edwards did talk a lot about "hope." He never mentioned Bush by name, while Cheney named Kerry more than a dozen times, mostly in the "America sees two John Kerrys" section about three-fourths of the way through. There Cheney ran down the list of Kerry's transgressions, as Cheney saw them, mostly pertaining to Kerry's Senate voting record on military issues and his various denunciations of American foreign policies.

Cheney's speech dealt with Kerry in bulk. Parsing out the negative from the positive in Edwards is more complex. He tended to speak in Pope-like balanced rhetorical couplets: Things are bad now; when we're elected things will be better. On the level of individual sentences, an awful lot of the Edwards speech comes apart neatly into a black half and a white half. His grand finale about "hope is on the way," for instance, was built almost entirely on contrasts. It's an effective tool and he used it well:

"When your parents call and tell you their medical bills are through the roof, you tell them hope is on the way." And so forth. The first half of that paints a dark picture, the second clause shines a light into it. But the darkness is as much a part of that tactic as the light. So in weighing Edwards' words, I count the words in the first part of that as a "negative" statements about the way things are (implicitly blaming the incumbents) and the second part as not negative.

Cheney didn't do that. His speech is in big chunks. When he talks about recovery from the recession or what Bush has done since Sept. 11, he's not contrasting it with anything. Then when he takes on Kerry, he plows straight into him.

The nature of the two parties' positions in 2004 force this, somewhat. As the ruling power, the Republicans can boast of what they see as their accomplishments. Then they can invoke a pure negative image of their rivals as a future to be scorned.

As the "outs," the Democrats have to walk a finer line, painting a picture of a country where just about everything is going wrong (as they see it) without seeming to be utterly pessimistic or anti-American in the good old French elite style. Spreading out the negative, leavening it with visions of hope, was Edwards' solution.

I think I was generous with Edwards. "Our plan will stop giving tax breaks to companies that outsource your jobs. Instead, we will give tax breaks to American companies that keep jobs here in America." That seems to me to be a one half negative, one hald positive statement. He describes what he sees as a specific current reality, and clearly implies it is suffered to continue by the current administration. I scored it as 13 negative words and 15 positive ones.

This was followed by, "And we will invest in the jobs of the future, in the technologies and innovation to ensure that America stays ahead of the competition." Even though this seems to me also to imply that he thinks the current administration is failing to do this, he doesn't say so explicitly. So I'd count that as 24 entirely "positive" words with no attack.

By importing Edwards' speech into a word processing program and trimming every positive (or neutral) passage out of it, I counted 779 words in sentences and phrases that were essentially negative, attacking either what the Bush administration has done, or failed to do. That's actually a larger chunk of text than Cheney's anti-Kerry passage, but Edwards' entire speech (3,617 words) was more than a third longer than Cheney's (2,691 words).

As a percentage, the negative quality in Edwards' speech amounted to about 22 percent of it. Cheney's attacks on Kerry amounted to just under 25 percent of his words.

Not a lot of difference to split there.

(If you want to try this at home, you can get the full text of the Edwards speech here, and the Cheney speech here.)

Here's my rough breakdown of their speeches, by topic:


  • introduces family: 105
  • thanks party for nominating him: 37
  • talks about Kerry's military record: 174
  • segues into John Kerry's values: 165
  • Talks about negative campaigning of the other side. Asks "aren't you sick of it." Promises "politics of hope": 101
  • talks about growing up and the opportunities he's had: 201
  • talks about his adult career making sure everyone else has the same opportunities: 119
  • talks about the "two Americas." Contrasts the negative reality (implied blame of the other party for either causing it or failing to cure it) with visionary statements about how good it could be, and some specifics: 924
  • talks about racism in America: 183
  • talks about fighting terrorism: 250
  • talks about the military: a little about Iraq war, more invocations of Kerry's Vietnam service, a little about veterans' benefits, military spread too thin: 412
  • talks about how Kerry will make the world (Iraq and Israel mentioned) and America safer by working with allies: 354
  • describes suffering Americans (unemployed, high bills, fighting in Iraq) and says "hope is on the way": 592


  • accepts nomination, praises Bush, makes hair joke: 123
  • talks about modest childhood, schooling, touts Bush education reform: 330
  • more Bush achievements or attempts: recovery from recession, health care; message "opportunity": 265
  • Sept. 11 and global war on terror, what Bush has done: 501
  • praises fighting men and women of America: 113
  • talks about this election being a defining moment in history: 207
  • lays out "the alternatives," mostly critical of Kerry's voting record and his denunciations of American policy; "America sees two John Kerrys": 661
  • praises Bush, rallies party: 490