Debate as Debate, the Final Cut: What Now, My Friends?

The final 2008 presidential debate was held last night at Hofstra University. As I have done with the two previous presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, I watched last nights' debate from the standpoint of a former debater and debate coach/advisor. Setting aside questions of who positioned himself best in the eyes of pundits or undecided voters, I once again watched the debate as if it were simply a debate and assessed the winner and loser on the basis of who argued and responded more effectively. Whereas in the previous two debates it was clear that Sen. Obama was allowing himself to be dragged down by his opponent's deficiencies as a debater, in this debate he pulled away cleanly and easily won the night. This is true even though Sen. McCain managed to improve somewhat on his earlier weak performances.

Last night's debate was, to my pleasant surprise, the best debate of the four that have been held this Fall. There was some actual arguing between the candidates, or "clash," where each candidate responded to his opponent in a way that was on point and required his opponent to respond further. Unlike the previous two presidential debates, it was also not boring. True, Sen. McCain's strategy amounted to what debaters often refer to as "dump trucking" -- throwing out every attack possible and hoping that something works -- but at least there was a bit of actual clash of ideas.

Despite being soundly defeated by Sen. Obama, there were some good things to be said for Sen. McCain. He had a very good line at the ready when Obama launched his first attempt to tie McCain to the historically unpopular incumbent Republican president, which everyone knew was coming. "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." That was a very nice way to put some distance between himself and George W. Bush. It was catchy and memorable. Unfortunately for Sen. McCain, his opponent had an answer, which is that Sen. McCain so frequently votes with Pres. Bush that it is hard to tell the difference. McCain's best thrust of the night, at least rhetorically, was thus neutralized by a quick and relevant riposte.

The other bit of good news for Mr. McCain was not really of his doing. When he tried to return to his pattern of making non-rebuttable pronouncements that he "knows how" to do things -- in this case "I know how to save billions of dollars in defense spending. I know how to eliminate programs" -- the moderator stopped him immediately by asking "Which ones?" Sen. McCain deserves credit for trying to answer the question and for being smart enough to (mostly) stop making such pronouncements, which had been such a major part of his claims in the first debate.

On the other hand, his attempt to list which programs he would eliminate to save money included eliminating the "marketing assistance program," which is surely unfamiliar to almost everyone listening to the debate. Even more damaging, the third of his three examples of how he would save money was to "eliminate the tariff on imported sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil." This may or not be a program that should be eliminated, but tariffs raise revenue. Telling us how you're going to save money by collecting less of it is more than a bit nonsensical.

McCain's biggest problem is that he apparently never learned the first lesson that my debate coach taught me: repetition is not refutation. While it is surely true that any effective speaker must repeat themes in order to emphasize and drive home points, mere repetition in response to an opponent's responses to your arguments is a losing strategy. For example, pushing his "Joe the plumber" theme far beyond its limited effectiveness, McCain simply could not respond to anything Obama said about Joe's taxes other than to simply repeat that Obama would raise them. This even after Obama described his tax plan and specifically explained why a small business owner (especially a first-time small business owner) would not see his taxes increase under that plan.

I am sure that there is a way to argue that any tax plan can indirectly harm small business owners, and the McCain campaign might well be putting out an argument to that effect as I write. Nothing in Sen. McCain's remarks, however, indicated that he had anything to say other than "Hey, Joe, you're rich, congratulations." Oy.

Sen. McCain's inability to parry his opponent's responses was especially evident when he challenged Sen. Obama early in the debate to provide examples of times when Obama had stood up to his party's leaders. When Obama quickly provided three examples, McCain's only response was: "Senator Obama, your argument for standing up to the leadership of your party isn't very convincing." Now that's not very convincing. Similarly, McCain responded to Obama's advocacy of a bill to allow the victims of discrimination to sue after they learn of the discrimination merely with this: "Obviously, that law waved the statute of limitations, which you could have gone back 20 or 30 years. It was a trial lawyer's dream." That's not an argument.

Beyond his preference for repetition over argumentation, Sen. McCain suffered from two other major problems in the debate. First, he could not stop himself from heckling Sen. Obama in what can only be described as a smart-alecky way. He interrupted Obama's responses with attempts at one-liners (example: after Obama's first example of how he had strayed from his party's line, McCain interjected sarcastically: "An overwhelming vote."), and he even ended the debate (prior to the closing statements) by saying, completely out of order: "Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working. I got it." The smile on his face indicated that Sen. McCain was quite pleased with himself.

This lack of gravitas also carried over to McCain's general demeanor. I happened to watch the debate on C-SPAN, which used a split screen to show both candidates throughout the debate. I have rarely seen anyone look as uncomfortable as Sen. McCain did last night. I doubt that Sen. Obama's campaign could have hoped for a less confidence-inspiring performance from their opponent. As I have said previously, I do not put much weight in judging a debate on stylistic matters, but this was too obvious not to notice.

A few examples of specific substantive matters on which there were exchanges between the debaters will help to demonstrate why Sen. McCain lost so decisively. First, during the early exchange between the candidates about taxes, Sen. McCain's remarks followed the usual line of describing all taxes as bad. Sen. Obama responded by noting that, obviously, no one likes to pay taxes; but revenue must be raised, and we have to decide from whom and how to raise taxes. Sen. McCain's best effort at a response was: "Nobody likes taxes. Let's not raise anybody's taxes. OK?" To be as kind as possible, this response lacks several logical steps.

Perhaps the high point -- from a pure debating standpoint -- of the night came during the discussion about the vice presidential nominees. Earlier, Sen. Obama had repeated his attack that Sen. McCain's proposed across-the-board spending freeze would prevent us from expanding valuable programs. When Sen. McCain gamely tried to make the case that he is proud of his running mate, he pointed to her concern for helping the families of special needs children and agreed that we need to do more to help them. Sen. Obama used that as a perfect example of what is wrong with a spending freeze. If we want to increase our assistance to the families of special needs children, then such spending cannot be frozen. This was a highly effective way to avoid directly attacking Gov. Palin, and Sen. Obama seized the opportunity to highlight a contradiction in Sen. McCain's arguments.

Another example of Sen. Obama's ability to respond on point and Sen. McCain's inability to follow up effectively was the exchange about abortion. Sen. McCain was prepared with an attack on Obama's votes in the Illinois State Senate against a bill to require that doctors care for infants who are born alive after a failed abortion, and against a so-called partial birth abortion bill. Sen. Obama explained that he voted against the first bill because doctors are already not only legally required to care for live infants but also required to do so as a matter of medical ethics. Sen. McCain had no response.

Sen. Obama further explained that he did not vote for the partial-birth bill because there was no exception for the life or health of the pregnant woman. Sen. McCain's response to this was puzzling in a number of ways. He repeated an earlier theme that suggested we should be suspicious of Sen. Obama's "eloquence" -- surely the first time I've heard that word used as a negative -- and then put air quotes around the word "health" to try to portray Sen. Obama as somehow favoring a slippery definition of health. This response does not at all address the lack of an exception for the life of the mother, and it also insults women by suggesting that their "health" is not a legitimate area of concern when passing laws affecting their bodies. If the choice of Gov. Palin as a running mate was supposed to appeal to Sen. Hillary Clinton's supporters, it is hard to imagine an answer that could have been more damaging to Sen. McCain's standing not only among Democratic women but among all women who are worried about politicians who do not take their lives and health seriously.

Finally, on the broad issue of government spending, it was not at all surprising that Sen. McCain revived his anti-spending theme and repeated it at every possible moment. While Sen. Obama did not push back on this as much as I think he should have, he did do a very good job of explaining why some government spending is fiscally responsible. First, he pointed out that the financial bailout/rescue plan need not end up costing taxpayers money. Properly managed, the money spent today will be recouped later. What it means to be "properly managed" is, of course, a matter of dispute and concern, which Sen. Obama acknowledged. Even so, Obama correctly described exactly why focusing on annual deficits can be so misleading.

It was thus good to see Obama point out that not all dollars spent are dollars lost. He made this point even more forcefully when he talked about spending on early childhood education, noting that "every dollar we invest in that, we end up getting huge benefits with improved reading scores, reduced dropout rates, reduced delinquency rates." This is an area on which I am in the process of doing some research, and Sen. Obama is clearly correct. It was truly heartening to hear someone make the case, in a clear and understandable way, that some spending is both prudent and good for future generations. Sen. McCain's default position was simply to repeat that spending is bad.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, the final debate ended up being a lot of fun for an old debater to watch and evaluate. Even though the debate was not close, this was another example (like the vice presidential debate) where a superior debater was able to shine even without facing effective opposition. Whether the Democrats' sweep of this year's debates will affect the election is beyond my powers of prediction. As debates, though, the results were clear.

--Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Once again, this is being cross-posted on Concurring Opinions.]