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.
III. This Fall

John McCain is not a good debater, not even by comparison with George W. Bush. Having been in Washington for decades, he knows many issues in detail. Having been in Washington for decades, he often overexplains those details, as Bob Dole did against Bill Clinton in 1996. The exception is the whole field of economics, where through most of the Republican debates, he skated by with allusions to the advisers he would consult.

Worse, he will look and sound old and weak next to Obama. Ronald Reagan was about McCain’s current age when he ran for reelection against Walter Mondale, but Reagan looked 10 years younger than McCain does now. Obama is 10 years younger than Mondale was and looks younger still. McCain must hope that he can apply a version of Reagan’s line about his opponent’s “youth and inexperience.” But lacking Reagan’s outward haleness, he risks coming across like Dole against Clinton—or, more ominously, his fellow ex-POW James Bond Stockdale, who turned in a notoriously lost- and incoherent-sounding performance against Al Gore and Dan Quayle (!) in the 1992 vice-presidential debates.

McCain also runs the risk of being the first Republican since Dole to go into the debates trailing in the national polls. This would allow Obama to do what George W. Bush did four years ago: nurse a lead and simply try to avoid mistakes. He’s had more practice with debates than McCain, and more recently.

In these circumstances, McCain’s tactics against Obama are obvious. He will ask for as many debates as he can, starting with informal town halls before either he or Obama is officially nominated. The informal setting shows him off to his best advantage, with the affable bantering that has long made him a favorite with the press. Whoever is behind wants more debates.

He will play the expectations game as hard as he can, knowing that’s how the press will keep score. Objectively, George W.Bush did poorly against both Gore and Kerry. But in each case, he did “better than expected,” and so, if anything, was helped by the debates. In every talk with reporters, the Republican campaign team will marvel at Obama’s gifts in rhetoric. Of course he’ll do well in debates; that goes along with being “all talk.”

Once he gets on the stage, McCain will try to remind Obama of Hillary Clinton—that is, of someone he must take seriously, someone who is willing to challenge him and even insult him to his face. Obama “is vain about his idealism and ‘nobility,’” a staff member for one of Obama’s Democratic opponents (not Clinton) told me on the phone. “He is thin-skinned about having his motives and competence questioned, so that’s what you do.” Grizzled pols like Hillary Clinton or her husband would laugh off such an attempt; Obama may still be innocent enough to be shaken by it. McCain made many dismissive references to Obama after Obama became the presumptive nominee. The easy next step is to do so while looking at him.

For Obama the key is: look at John McCain, and see Alan Keyes.

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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.

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.

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