Rhetorical Questions

Who will win the presidential debates? What does each candidate’s use of words say about how he would govern as president? Can Obama’s rhetorical skills lift him to the heights of Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan—or will his speechmaking do him in? After watching all 47 (!) of the primary season’s debates, our correspondent has the answers—and some harsh criticism for the moderators.
obama debate
Photo credit: Brooks Kraft/Corbis

Recently I did what no sane person would: I watched the entire set of presidential primary debates, in sequence, like a boxed set of a TV show. In scale this was like three or four seasons’ worth of The Sopranos. The Democrats had 26 debates, nearly all more than one hour long, and all but one of them with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Republicans had 21, if you count the session for which a single “debater” showed up. That was the NAACP forum in Detroit, which all eight Democrats but only Representative Tom Tancredo of the Republicans agreed to attend. I had seen only two of the debates in real time because so few were carried internationally. Those that were available in streaming video were too slow and jerky to be watchable in China, where I’ve been living. (It eventually took more than two weeks of round-the-clock Internet downloading to collect all the files.)

I had read many of the transcripts and much of the resulting coverage, but had not been part of the shared viewing experience of getting to know the candidates through the drawn-out series of live encounters. As with trial testimony, job interviews, and blind dates, seeing people interact is the only way to understand what is going on. We don’t watch debates to learn what someone thinks about Social Security. We watch to see how the contenders look next to their opponents, how they react when challenged, how well or poorly they come up with the words we later see in print. That’s what I hadn’t seen until I watched the debates end to end.

Reagan dismisses Carter with a “There you go again” in 1980

There have been nine series of televised general-election debates. These started with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, resumed with Ford-Carter in 1976, and have been a campaign fixture ever since. In all but one election, the debates produced a moment that figured in the ultimate outcome. (The exception was Clinton-Dole in 1996, when neither man said anything that changed a voter’s mind.) The dramatic exchanges that made a difference—Ronald Reagan’s amused and dismissive “There you go again” against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis’s too-composed look when asked in 1988 how he would react if his wife were raped, George H.W. Bush’s desperate “when will this end?” glance at his wristwatch during a town-hall session with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, Al Gore’s operatic sighs about George W. Bush in 2000—would have passed unnoticed in a transcript. The transcript conveys only part of, for example, the alarming meandering in Ronald Reagan’s soliloquy at the end of his second 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. Reagan, looking confused and forgetting his point, was rescued only when the moderator, Edwin Newman, announced that time was up: “Mr. President, I’m obliged to cut you off there, under the rules of the debate. I’m sorry.” Mondale should have been sorry, too.

I paid more attention to the Democrats, and will concentrate on them here, because their debates went on three months longer, mattered more, and revealed more about them as possible leaders. What the debates did for the Republicans was eliminate one candidate, on grounds of sheer torpor: Fred Thompson. They gave another, Ron Paul, a platform for ongoing Internet-based influence and elevated a third, Mike Huckabee, out of the fringe category, thanks to his sounding wittier and more amiable than the other candidates. John McCain gave clues to what he will do this fall, but nothing he said in the debates was a key to his success in winning the nomination, nor were Rudy Giuliani’s and Mitt Romney’s debate performances pivotal in their failures.

For the Democrats, though, the debates were dramatic in themselves and important in shaping the result. Hillary Clinton seriously blew only one answer of the countless hundreds she delivered. That was her fumbling response on whether she thought illegal immigrants should get driver’s licenses—delivered 100 minutes into a late-night debate in Philadelphia last October, when she looked drained. As with Gerald Ford’s famous fumbled comments about Eastern Europe when debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, what she meant to say was obvious. Ford meant to say that the Poles and others behind the Iron Curtain had an unconquerable spirit and would never accept Soviet domination. What he actually said, and dug himself in on, was that they were free.

Clinton answers a question about issuing licenses to illegal immigrants

What Clinton meant to say was that then-Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, in proposing licenses for illegal immigrants so as to regulate their safety on the roads, was making the best of a bad situation created by the chaos of federal policy on immigration. The state of New York had no way to enforce a border-control policy of its own. So it was doing what it could to reduce the traffic risk.

What she actually said, and stuck to when atypically given several chances to clarify by the questioner, the late Tim Russert, was that Spitzer’s plan made “a lot of sense” but wasn’t “the best thing” to do, without indicating how those two views could coexist. In other circumstances, she would have batted away this issue as she routinely did much tougher questions. (The two signs that she was ready to dispose of a nuisance issue: “I’ve said many times …,” so whatever has come up can’t be news; and “the real question is …,” the politician’s standard way of shifting discussion back to more-favorable ground. Barack Obama’s version of this tactic is to say “it’s just common sense …,” indicating that what he’s about to say is restating the obvious and reasonable. “Look” or “listen” at the start of an answer is his version of “the real question is,” a sign that he wants to answer something different from what was asked.) But in the real circumstances, the blog and cable-news controversy over her “stumble” and “equivocation” significantly cut her then-large national lead over Obama and gave him an opening.

For Democrats, the season’s debates produced more news and newsworthy quotes than those in past campaigns. Indeed, the most newsmaking comment that came from anywhere except a debate was Obama’s remark at a California fund-raiser that economically strained and “bitter” people clung to their guns and God—which of course became a question for him at the subsequent debates.

And apart from their effect on the nomination contest that has ended, the Democratic debates show something unexpected about the general-election contest this fall. The conventional wisdom is that debates were Obama’s great weak point. While Hillary Clinton time and again beat expectations, Obama never managed to put her away or receive big acclaim after a debate.

Because his major speeches were so influential, long, and carefully wrought, it seems natural to conclude that today’s bear-baiting debates are just the wrong vehicle for him. “You’ve got to remember, he is a constitutional-law professor,” I was told by Newton Minow, who as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under John F. Kennedy declared television a “vast wasteland” and who as a partner in the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin hired Obama as a summer associate 19 years ago. “He’s used to seeing all sides of an issue, and he tends to lay out all sides before giving his own view.” By that time, the clock has run out.

Obama in a 2004 debate with Alan Keyes as “a relaxed, funny politician unafraid to go jab for jab”

That’s true, but it can’t be the whole answer. 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.

I won’t contend that Beijing, over a shaky Internet connection, is the ideal vantage point from which to follow every nuance of a primary campaign. But living at a remove from day-by-day coverage on TV and minute-by-minute chatter in Washington can highlight certain trends and details that are easily lost in the ongoing wash of news. For me, it had the effect of clarifying the strengths and occasional weaknesses created by Obama’s rhetorical style; suggesting what he has to fear in the debates with John McCain; and indicating how rhetoric might affect his governing style if he wins. It also provided a surprisingly sharp reminder of the latest twist in the story of the press’s role in helping choose our president.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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