In his excellent history of American politics in the 70’s,The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein shows us a side of Ronald Reagan I was not aware of —Reagan the master rhetorician. Political pros like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford scorned Reagan as a “lightweight,” but Reagan never doubted his own abilities—especially his communication skills.
When a reporter challenged him to explain how he expected to be elected president proposing the same positions on issues like welfare that had doomed Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan replied that he did support the same positions as Goldwater, but he believed his arguments would succeed where Goldwater’s failed because he knew how to frame them. He then made what seemed a Delphic statement,“I’ve always believed that you put the qualifier first.” He then gave an example of how he would use the “qualifier first” strategy in discussing welfare:
“Now, I am not suggesting that we stop welfare tomorrow. So having qualified with that, let me say, I just have faith in the American people that if through some set of circumstances welfare disappeared tomorrow, no one would miss a meal. The people in this country, in every community, would get together and form emergency committees, and take up the slack. These are the kind of people they are. “ (p.556)
Let’s analyze this. The qualifier “ I am not suggesting we stop welfare tomorrow” protects him from critics who might claim he is making a radical policy proposal at the same time the punch line “no one would miss a meal” suggests exactly such a change. Read the punch line first and then the qualifier, and you will get a different message. The qualifier softens the emotional force of the punch line. Conclusion: No one is suggesting that we stop welfare. When the qualifier comes first, it is quickly blotted out by the image of the heroic communal effort to see that everyone is fed. Conclusion: Welfare is unnecessary.
It’s all about how a speaker (or writer) uses words. It’s important that we all be aware of the strategies speakers use to persuade us. We may want to copy them to be more persuasive ourselves, but we should also remind ourselves that rhetorical strategies often misdirect us from important facts.The image of voluntary emergency committees spontaneously arising across the land to supply meals to the needy is striking, but not a viable substitute for a comprehensive financial support system for people in poverty.
As later events proved, Nixon and Ford underestimated Reagan. Guile works — at least with regard to questions of persuasion.