Monday, January 18, 2010

Equal Time

Title: Response to the State of the State
Speech By: Senator Dean Skelos

It is traditional for the other party to respond to a major speech, such as the State of the State, or State of the Union. We examined the former, so this is an examination of the response by Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos. It is our version of equal time.
Full Disclosure - In examining New York politicians, we are talking about people I know personally. Governor Paterson and I have discussed seeing eye dog legislation, and Senator Skelos addresses me on a first-name basis. But none who ascends The Bully Pulpit is absolved of scrutiny from our little Congregation.
Date: January 6, 2010
Location: Albany, New York
Length (words): 850
Video Posted: YouTube
Text Posted: New York State Senator Dean G. Skelos

This speech starts out with the phrase “I’m Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos.” That’s a bad start. “I” is always a bad way to start a speech. It does not establish that all-important shared identification with the audience that gets people to listen. It generally does the opposite.

Granted, Governor Paterson spoke live before a crowded Assembly chamber, with an introduction by the Lieutenant Governor, while Senator Skelos spoke on television. But there are ways to handle this problem. Why not have an announcer introduce the Senator, or even superimpose on-screen titles? Actually, why not both? To compound the problem, the original tape is posted on the Web - unedited. It would take little effort to trim the first four seconds of video, or even just the sound, and insert a voice-over intro and titles. That way, later viewers would see a better product.

There are other flaws with this talk, though none is extremely damaging, and it’s not a bad speech, on balance. But it should have been better. The thing is - when you are competing with a Governor, who gets a greater share of public attention, you must maximize your opportunities.

This is an era when identification with political parties is at an all-time low. The largest portion of the electorate is not Democrat, nor Republican, it is unaffiliated voters - “independents.” So a speech that appeals heavily to partisan identification is likely to miss a large portion of the intended audience.

Yes, you want to blame the other side for their mistakes, and take credit for what you did right, that’s how democracy works. But he uses the phrase “Republican” or “Senate Republicans” half a dozen times. That’s more than once a minute, in this five minute speech. After once or twice the phrase “my colleagues and I,” might be preferable. If you are politically aware enough to listen to these speeches, you pretty much know what the sides are.

In terms of assigning blame to the other party, I actually think he lost a good opportunity. Early in the speech, he talks about how the budget adopted by the Democrats last year made life tougher for New York families, reciting a litany of problems.
“You lost your STAR rebate checks that helped you pay your property taxes.”
“Your energy taxes were raised, increasing your utility bills.”
“They increased the cost of health insurance for your family.”
“And, they made it more expensive for you to register your car, renew your driver’s license and pay for every day family needs.”
This was truly a lost opportunity to make an “Us versus them” comparison. For example, when you think about it, if “You lost your STAR rebate check,” you should start looking for it in the last place you saw it. That’s not what happened. It was taken away in a budget maneuver.

How about phrasing it this way instead:
“They took away our STAR rebate checks, which helped pay our property taxes.”
“They  raised energy taxes, increasing our utility bills.”
“They increased the cost of our health insurance.”
“And, they made it more expensive to register our cars, renew our driver’s licenses and pay for every day family needs.”

It makes the other party “they,” and, by substituting "our" for "your," makes it clear on whose side the speaker stands.

Equal time isn’t really equal - except perhaps at The Bully Pulpit - you have to make the most of your opportunities. This could have been better.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. Good points. Here's what I wonder: assuming very few people watch or listen to the opposition after a state-of-the-state, what can the opposition do to obtain a bigger audience? Should they advertise in advance that they will be responding? Should they buy space in newspapers to print their response?

  2. Peter - thanks for commenting. And for those readers who aren't aware, Peter Pollak is publisher of The Empire Page - a great source for political news and information in the Empire State.
    I'm not sure I agree with your premise - I think people would pay attention to the response - if the speakers made their response worth listening to. Last year, after the State of the Union, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave the response, and it was terrible. It was completely forgettable, and so we have.
    But I truly feel follow-up is the answer to increasing the audience. Use the burgeoning social networks to promote your ideas. If those ideas are good, and not overly partisan, they will find an audience.