Why Do Losers Make Great Speakers?

By Derek Thompson  

Al Gore’s speech last night in Denver was the opposite of his failed 2000 presidential campaign—funny, fresh, even a little inspiring. John Kerry’s speech the night before was quotable and downright side-splitting compared with his wooden self in 2004. And Hillary Clinton’s speech on Tuesday? The sometimes chilly candidate was praised for crushing at the convention center .

Why do we love speeches by candidates who lost? Do we lower the bar out of pity? Or do they really jump higher?

It probably has more to do with the bar. Presidential candidates have to be unflappable but human, talented but humble, transcendent but relatable. But if you lost an election, there’s no such requirement. That’s why Hillary got to talk about the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.” Al Gore mocked his own narrow loss. Even Kerry snuck in a line about McCain “being for it before he was against” certain policies.

But self-deprecation isn’t why their speeches succeeded. It’s because they transcended the criticisms that dogged them throughout their campaigns. Hillary seemed more emotive and put her legacy in the context of women’s rights and civil rights. Kerry looked comfortable and aggressive, though he was neither in 2004. And Gore flashed the same hip wonkiness he’s rocked for years—that is, the years after 2000.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s not that losing makes you charismatic. It’s that running for president makes you stiff. Message control is paramount to modern campaigns, but it’s also a candidate’s straitjacket hemmed in by voter interests, poll-tested buzz words, and obligatory nods to patriotism and family. In 2004, Kerry played the military card with painful stiltedness, saluting the audience, “reporting for duty,” and yammering about Old Glory. In 2008, Kerry played the consummate Obama advocate, mixing direct attacks on John McCain with flairs of humor that electrified the convention center.

Sen. Clinton slouched off the shackles of candidacy even faster. Often criticized for her coldness on the stump, she gave a generous concession speech in June that drew raves . In Denver, she summed up a central issue—the moral smallness of Hillary-first Democrats like PUMA—better than anyone “I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me?” she asked. “Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids?” It was the perfect question, balancing common sense with sentimentality. If she had learned to master that combo eight months ago, Thursday might have represented a different Democratic first.