Debate as Debate, part 2 (or 3): What is the Point of the Exercise?

After the first presidential debate late last month, I posted some comments about the event from my perspective as a former academic debater and coach/advisor. Similarly, I later posted some reactions to the vice presidential debate. The short version of my take on those debates is that Obama clearly won his debate, but paradoxically not by as much as he would have if his opponent were not such an insistently inept debater; and Biden won his debate by successfully transcending his opponent’s inability to offer a coherent argument.

In making these assessments, I deliberately set aside the criteria on which the pundits usually proclaim winners and losers in such debates: who had the best zinger or the most memorable line, who performed better than or worse than they were expected to perform (by whom?), and so on. My purpose was to answer a question that I have often heard people ask in this and other election years: Viewed solely as a debate, who won?

When I did not post any comments on the second presidential debate (which was held this past Tuesday evening), several people contacted me and asked that I offer similar commentary on that debate at some point before the final debate this coming Wednesday. I am happy to do so; but I should note that the reason I did not post comments immediately afterward was that there seemed to be very little new to say about that debate (in which so little new was said). Indeed, I am beginning to wonder what the point of such debates could be, given that they can seem so unproductive and vapid. I will return to that question after a quick assessment of the second debate itself.

First, it has to be said that the format of the second debate was unhelpful (and that’s putting it gently). The debate was in a so-called “town hall” style. If anything, this format makes it even less likely that the candidates will engage with each other on the issues, mostly because they seem to be so busy trying to flatter the voter/questioner — which, among other things, prevents the candidate from challenging the premises or importance of a question. Given that I have always given minimal credit for style and maximum credit for clash on the issues, this format was all but guaranteed to make this debate worse in my assessment for both candidates than the first one. (I am not, of course, completely impervious to differences in debaters’ styles. For example, McCain’s occasional tendency to speak in breathy, dramatic tones was new to this debate and more than a bit off-putting.)

On the merits, the second debate went pretty much the way of the first debate. Perhaps the major differences were that Sen. McCain reduced (but certainly did not eliminate) the number of times that he made simple assertions (“I know how to ___”) in place of arguments, and Sen. Obama seemed to have made a strategic decision not to try to untangle McCain’s description of the issues as much as he did in the first debate. Thus, this debate looked much more like alternating stump speeches than the last one did. There were still sharp exchanges in which Obama debated and McCain merely repeated (especially regarding the questions on Pakistan and health care), making Obama clearly the better debater. There was not, however, nearly as much direct exchange of arguments as there had been in the earlier debate.

Sen. McCain had one particularly good moment, which was when he forthrightly refused to answer a yes-or-no question and explained why he would not do so. Question: “This requires only a yes or a no. Ronald Reagan famously said that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?” McCain’s response included this: “If I say yes, then that means that we’re reigniting the old Cold War. If I say no, it ignores their behavior.” This was a very effective way to expose the inanity of the question.

On the other hand, McCain continued to insist that Obama “fails to admit that he was wrong about Iraq.” Sen. Obama, of course, does not believe that he was wrong about Iraq, which means that when Obama tries to explain his position on Iraq, he “fails to admit” what he believes to be false. It’s an old rhetorical trick, and it can be applied to anything. “Sen. McCain has never admitted that his image as a maverick has long since gone stale and has no current basis in fact.” Build an assertion into the premise of the question, and then watch the other guy struggle to disentangle the assertion from the actual question. Obama did not take the bait.

The only other noteworthy aspect of this debate is McCain’s attempts at quasi-heckling. Having asserted that Obama would impose fines on companies and parents who failed to buy health insurance, he then predicted that his opponent would not tell the audience how big the fine would be. After Obama responded by describing his health plan in a way that McCain did not like, McCain interrupted the moderator and said: “I don’t believe that — did we hear the size of the fine?”

Similarly, Obama at one point (mixing “wet behind the ears” and “green” as metaphors for inexperience) said: “Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears and, you know, I’m just spouting off, and he’s somber and responsible.” McCain jumped in with: “Thank you very much,” and laughed. The effectiveness of this sort of thing is, of course, largely in the eye of the beholder; but it certainly struck me as odd for McCain to be acting frivolous and irresponsible while claiming to be somber and responsible. It was especially surprising that Sen. McCain thought these one-liners were even worth launching, given his need to come across as less volatile and more grounded in these debates than he has recently.

As I noted above, the lack of news in the second presidential debate left me wondering whether there is even a point in holding these events (whether or not we continue to mislabel them as debates). On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the correspondent John Oliver offered a brilliant critique of the debates as being nothing more than people sitting around waiting for a candidate to commit a gaffe. That certainly seems more accurate than viewing the debates as clashes of ideas.

Still, the reason that I was involved in competitive debate for so many years was that even stilted exchanges offer opportunities to see whether debaters can think on their feet, respond directly to questions and challenges, and point out when someone else’s arguments simply miss the point. Those skills are valuable in any position where difficult decisions must be made about complex issues. This is not by any means the only basis upon which to choose a president, but it at least will bring me to my TV set this coming Wednesday evening to watch the final debate.

At this point, viewed as debates, Obama and Biden have a total of three wins under their belts.

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