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.
More
kucinich debate
CJ Gunther/Pool/EPA/Corbis

II. The Finalists

It is surprising how early the characters and plot lines for the debate series were set. In a sense, if you saw the first episode, with Brian Williams in South Carolina, you knew how the next 10 would go.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards were already the figures of consequence, with the others in a variety of supporting roles. Biden and his Senate colleague Dodd started that night down the course that would let each of them achieve something unusual: lose a political race in a big, lopsided way but enhance his personal and political standing. (Morris Udall, in his losing race for the Democratic nomination against Jimmy Carter, and Paul Tsongas and Bruce Babbitt against Bill Clinton, did something comparable.) Biden did so by seeming personable and funny. When given his first tough question in this first debate—whether he could curb his tendency to filibuster and exaggerate and could “have the discipline you would need on the world stage”—he made his winningest reply of the entire campaign: the single word “Yes.” Through the campaign, Dodd also moved into the nothing-to-lose jokey mode. In December, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards starchily said in an NPR radio debate, “My kids will not have toys coming from China” for Christmas, presumably because they were tainted. Dodd, who had moved his wife and young children to Iowa during the campaign, instantly and sarcastically topped him: “My toys are coming from Iowa. I’m buying Iowa toys. They’re going to eat Iowa food! Iowa toys!” It was the voice of someone about to get 1 percent of the vote but still sane enough to appreciate the absurdity of the endless primary campaign.

The pilot episode of the debate series established the other characters and their personalities, too: former Senator Mike Gravel and Representative Dennis Kucinich in the roles of rabble-rouser and truth-teller. Governor Bill Richardson as the insider making outsider-type dramatic claims—in that first debate, that if he were president, he would order every single U.S. soldier out of Iraq by the end of the year.

In the top tier, Edwards was from the start in a class by himself. He was crisper than Hillary Clinton in making his points, sticking to his message, and turning any question to the topic he wanted to discuss. He was better attuned than Barack Obama to the dramatic and emotional elements of presenting his case. Political debates are more like jury trials than like tests of logic. You win by making onlookers believe you—and therefore your argument. No one watching the debates could wonder how Edwards had won so many trials—and if this had been a jury case, it would have been settled early on. His one real weakness as a debater was overuse of “my daddy was a mill worker” to introduce any discussion of economic matters.

Then the contest came down to Clinton and Obama. Their paired evolution under questioning was fascinating because each changed—in different and revealing ways.

What never changed about Hillary Clinton, except in the 30 seconds about driver’s licenses that may have cost her so dearly, was her confidence and command of the facts. How did she prepare for the debates? I asked Sidney Blumenthal. “She prepared by doing her job,” he said. “These are issues that take years to master.” He had in mind her ability to discuss anything, from the hidden mandates in Obama’s “non-mandate” health plan (the ones requiring parents to insure their kids) to the history of dealings with Pakistan. No one would dream of asking her to name the prime minister of Canada, for fear of getting a response about her meetings with him and his three predecessors.

She could not be flapped and was never tongue-tied. When asked at the YouTube debate whether she was a “liberal,” she instantly gave a concise explanation of why she preferred “the word ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning, going back to the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century.” Thus she avoided a dreaded label without disowning the liberal heritage. When Stephanopoulos opened a debate that was held on his Sunday-morning show by asking her bluntly if Obama was up to the job, she parried with, “Well, George, I was going to say good morning,” getting a laugh, and then eased into, “You know, I’m running on my own qualifications and experience.” Tim Russert surprised her by reading a statement about when a president might authorize torture, asking her opinion, and then revealing, after she disagreed with it, that the author was her husband. “Well, he’s not standing here right now,” she said after absolutely no pause—meaning not that she was talking behind his back but that she would speak for herself and for no one else.

Hillary's "That hurts my feelings!" line and Obama's response

She also used surprising dramatic skills to educe Barack Obama’s very worst moment in the debates. This was on January 5, a Saturday night, just after Obama’s startling victory in the Iowa caucuses and just before the New Hampshire primary, which Clinton suddenly needed to win lest she be swept away. Scott Spradling, of WMUR-TV in the host city of Manchester, New Hampshire, asked Clinton about poll findings that people respected her but didn’t like her.

“Well … that hurts my feelings,” she said, with a sly smile that brought laughter from the crowd. “I’m sorry,” Spradling said, to applause. “I’m sorry!”

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In