Primary Debates

If you have some time, I highly recommend James Fallows’ mash up of the Presidential debates from the primaries. I’m going to have multiple posts on the content therein, but I want to start with this critique of Obama’s debating ability:

There was a time when he seemed naturally suited to rapid-fire debate, as I found by watching an earlier and less familiar set of Obama’s debate performances. The contrast is not as stark as one I discussed in an article before the presidential debates of 2004, which concerned George W. Bush’s transformation from the on-point and seemingly silver-tongued Texas politician who bested Democratic opponents in gubernatorial debates in the 1990s to the aphasic figure we have known on the national scene. But it is readily apparent. The Obama who took on the Republican ambassador, perennial presidential candidate, talk-show host, and motormouth Alan Keyes in the Illinois Senate debates of 2004—a relaxed, funny politician unafraid to go jab for jab—differed noticeably from the surprisingly tentative, slow-to-attack candidate who survived but did not triumph through this season’s debates.

The answer, I think, lies in the different dynamics of different races. Attacking Keyes and going jab for jab is easy; the two are ideological ad partisan opponents who are supposed to spar and trade pointed jabs, to say nothing of the fact that Keyes is almost universally looked at as a laughingstock. Obama could be funny and relaxed, and sort of give everyone the feeling of being in on a big joke being made at Alan Keyes’ expense. The primary race, and indeed all primaries for the most part, are entirely different animals. For one thing, there’s little ideological seperation between members of the same party, and the audience/voters are also members of the party, which means that they probably have a generally favorable view of most, if not all, of the candidates. You could pretty easily cast a vote for, say, Joe Biden and still be perfectly content if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or Random Democrat beats “your” candidate. The extension of that though is that negative campaigning has much more limited appeal. If you have a generally favorable opinion of everyone, pointed sustained attacks coming from one candidate is more off-putting than it is when you have partisan opposition to the opponent. So contrasts have to be more measured and nuanced, especially when you’re sitting next to each other, and that creates a more awkward dynamic to making attacks. Everyone agrees that Clinton was a great debater, but remember the response in the hall when she delivered the “change you can Xerox” line?

I don’t know how this is going to translate into the fall; whether Obama will be able to attack more freely or whether McCain’s biography will make it hard to go directly at him. So I suspect that a large part of Obama’s plan, and indeed why they may be so seemingly passive at the moment, is to play rhetorical rope-a-dope with McCain. That is; to allow McCain’s campaign to increasingly establish a strategy built around personal attacks, and leave them hanging on a limb at a debate. After all, it’s goig to be hard to levy biting verbal jabs when you’re standing right next to the guy, and then McCain is put in a bad spot; if he doesn’t attack, the entire campaign message of the past few months will be washed away in an instant, but if he does, and Obama stays on point, he’ll look like an angry, grumpy, old man who wants to bitch about everyone next to a young, fresh, serious candidate who wants to talk policy and cleaning up Bush’s mess. Either way, the Obama campaign comes out the winner, at a time when coming out ahead is actually important.