The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

The Substance Quotient – VP Speech Analysis

After watching key parts of the DNCC and RNCC these past few weeks, including the big speeches by substantial figures like McCain, Obama, Palin, and Biden, and important secondary figures like Gore and Lieberman, I’ve had some personal reactions to some of the speeches. The most interesting contrast to me so far, of the speeches I’ve had a chance to think about, are Biden and Palin.

I’ll have first a rational look at their speeches, and then a personal reaction to something from Gov. Palin’s speech. Let’s start with my rational thoughts on the Biden/Palin speeches.

During the DNCC, I didn’t actually see Biden’s speech. I read it afterward. I watched 2/3 of Palin’s speech on YouTube last night, and read the rest before going to sleep. I heard excerpts from both of them on NPR. What I began to wonder was, in a year when substantive issues matter to me so much, did the two VP candidates hit issues at a high rate? Was there more fluff than substance in their speeches? When both campaigns have promised to talk about what’s truly important to the substance of our nation, did the VP candidates deliver on that vision?

I decided to do the following analysis. I searched the speech text for “Will/By” pairs – that is, statements like ” . . . Candidate X will do Y, by enacting Z as a policy.” I was interested in substantive statements, statements that imply an active policy in that administration. For instance, if a VP said their Presidential partner would “create new jobs” or “lower taxes”, but didn’t describe or imply a policy action by which this could be achieved (e.g. reviewing the performance of government programs and cutting funding to under-performing programs, etc.), I didn’t count that as substance. That example gives the candidate one point in the “will” category but 0 points in the “by” category. For a given “will”, there can be several “bys” that are substantial, so the by/will ratio can exceed 1.0.

To narrow the scope of the search for wills, and to find a way to categorize them, I used the issues lists provided by the candidates [1]. I assign points to issues’ “wills” based on what the VP said the administration will do for that issue; for the “wills”, I make a judgement call on substantive “bys”.

I then define the Substance Quotient (SQ). This is a simple formula:

SQ = (1/2) * (N_wills  + N_bys) / N_issues

where N_wills is the number of “wills” in the speech, related to any issue, N_bys is the total number of “bys” for all “wills”, and N_issues is the number of issues the candidate has listed as important to them. This quotient has some interesting behavior:

  • In a simple case, where a candidate has 1 issue, the quotient can take on the following kinds of values: 0, if the speech contains no “wills” (“bys” can only exist if there is a “will”); 0.5, if a “will” is given in the speech for that issue but no “bys”; 1, if the speech mentions a will for that issue and one “by” to go with it; >1 is possible if multiple “wills” and/or “bys” are given.
  • A score of 1 is good – the speech is hitting every issue of importance to the campaign.
  • A score of >1 is better – more detail is being given than just paying homage to the list of issues
  • A score < 1 can mean several things, but all of them suggest the speech failed to hit all the issues important to the campaign, and one can then compare the scores of different speakers to see if one hit more issues than another.
  • The more issues you have, the more failure you can be setup for; having lots of issues is great, but failing to have a policy vision for them suggests a lack of focus or vision.

With that in mind, let’s look at Palin and Biden. The data and the results, with notes, are available here:

The speech texts are available in the references below [2] [3]. The first thing you’ll note is that issue percentage hit by the two candidates is radically different. Biden’s speech covered 41% of the issues important to Obama, while Palin covered just 6% of the issues of importance to McCain. That already makes these speeches very different in substance, and on that alone you could rest. Some comments here are important. When a candidate spoke about something that was personally important to them – family issues, personal history, etc – I didn’t infer a future policy from that. That doesn’t count as a “will”; when Palin speaks about her family’s ups and downs, I don’t that as a possible policy “will” for McCain under “The Sanctity of Life”. When Biden talks about his son’s service in the military, I don’t count that as a policy “will” for Obama under “Veterans” or “Foreign Policy”.

In the Biden analysis, I also make the following judgements:

  • A president can set alternative energy as a priority though policy and budget prioritization; I count that as a “by”. It’s unclear how a President can just create “5 million new jobs” or “free us from foreign oil” – those aren’t policies, but goals. I don’t count them as “bys”
  • I count investing in teachers as a “by”, but not making college more affordable; the former can again be done by fiscal policy, while the latter is a broader goal with no obvious fiscal route besides loans.
  • I don’t count either reforming the tax code or cutting taxes for 95% of paycheck-drawing Americans as “bys” – Biden never says how such huge feats could be accomplished, so these are goals.
  • Helping Georgia rebuild and opening a dialogue with Iran are things a President can do to achieve a foreign policy, though budget and diplomatic avenues; there are federal programs already proposed by the President to fund more cops in cities, so that is a policy “by” for urban policy. Holding Russia accountable, driving healthcare costs down, delivering affordable healthcare, shifting responsibility to Iraqi troops and withdrawing US troops, and putting “security” back in social security are all rhetorical goals with no substantive path outlined.

Gov. Palin lists one issue – energy – and lists one “will/by” pair – will achieve energy independence by several “bys” – drilling, more nuclear plants, clean coal, and alternative energies. I count that as 4 “bys” for this one “will”.

The SQ for Biden is computed to be 0.39, and for Palin to be 0.14. Part of what dragged Biden down in this speech was that he only hit half of the 22 issues listed by Obama. McCain lists only 18 issues, and Palin hit 1 of them. Her denominator was smaller to begin with, so that makes her number stay afloat despite hitting only 1 issue. Regardless, her score is substantially smaller than Biden’s.

That’s my rational thinking about the speeches. Here is my one, personal reaction to Palin’s speech last night.

During the speech, Gov. Palin had this one short little line she used as a jab at Sen. Obama. She said,

“Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?” [2]

This struck me because of who is the top billing on this ticket, Sen. McCain. As was touted many, many times at the RNCC, Sen. McCain was shot down over Vietnam and taken as a prisoner of war. He was held for many years, brutally tortured and mis-treated, and he survived.

He can’t raise it any higher because of the broken bones he suffered in Vietnam serving his country and standing up for his men. (Sen. Sam Brownback, RNCC Speech)

He was shot down and captured. He was brutally tortured. He could have eased his own pain and even cut short his imprisonment by uttering a few simple words renouncing his country . . .Most of us can lift our arms high in the air to signify that we want something. His arms can’t even lift to shoulder level, a constant reminder that his life is marked not by what he wants to receive, but by what he’s already given. (Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee, RNCC Speech)

They took him to the Hanoi Hilton, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. He was offered medical care for his injuries if he would give up military information in return . . .  His other broken bones and injuries were not treated. John developed a high fever, dysentery . . . So then they put him in solitary confinement…for over two years . . . Isolation … incredible heat beating on a tin roof. A light bulb in his cell burning 24 hours a day . . . Boarded-up cell windows blocking any breath of fresh air  . . . The oppressive heat causing boils the size of baseballs under his arms. (Fmr. Sen. Fred Thompson, RNCC Speech)

By his own friends’ recounting, John McCain was taken as a prisoner of war, and in violation of his rights under the Geneva convention the Viet-Cong brutally tortured and neglected him. While Sen. McCain would certainly not be the man he was today without these life-shaping experiences, I have no doubt that a young and brutally tortured John McCain wished he had those rights. I also don’t doubt that many more man failed to survive this horrid treatment, either by dying physically or mentally.

Which leads me to my personal outrage. Gov. Palin is about to run on  a ticket with a man who was brutally stripped of his rights when taken prisoner on the battlefield, tortured for years, and who carries that experience as part of who he is. McCain survived it and turned it to good, but so many other men and women across the world have been broken and killed by such acts, or turned to a kind of hatred that no apology can quench. It seems to me she has to believe one of two things: that rights are only important to Americans taken prisoner, but not to non-Americans taken prisoner by us, or that transformative experiences like this, fostered in the crucible of inhuman torture and neglect, are important to creating the leaders of tomorrow.

Either way, this doesn’t sound a like a person who’s actually been informed by the experiences and values of the very partner she has on this ticket. I worry about leadership like that, about a political view that takes down an opponent while neglecting to honor the history of a friend. I worry about leadership like that.