My recent article about the 2007-2008 primary campaign debates -- you remember, "Raise your hand if you can spell 'Paraguay' " -- applied well to the general-election debates in some ways, and was overtaken by events in some others. (Note: this item supersedes my previously-advertised "last words" about the whole topic of debates.)
Here is what strikes me in retrospect as the most important continuity between the earlier round of debates and what we've just seen: It is continuity itself, specifically the unchanging nature of Barack Obama's presentation of himself, his personality, and his message.
I mentioned in the article that Hillary Clinton was technically a much more polished debater than Obama through the primaries. She answered quickly and crisply; she always got to her talking points; she was almost always on her game and almost never fazed. The problem was that the deeper identity and personality she presented changed dramatically from one debate to the next. Conciliatory toward her rivals in some encounters, harshly critical in others, the shifts matching U-turns in the campaign. With equal levels of effectiveness, she could appear to be a different person each time:
Hillary Clinton's level of skill remained consistent; the ends toward which she used it varied. We have seen this pattern before, with Al Gore's performances in his three debates against George W. Bush in 2000.... By scoring logical points but confusing his identity, Gore hurt himself with the "jury." So did Hillary Clinton.
Obama, by contrast, had varying levels of skill through the debates -- but almost no variation in the personality, message, or what we now call "temperament" he displayed:
Barack Obama's evolution through the debates was just the opposite of Clinton's. To an amazing degree, his message never changed; it matured.
Knowing where Obama ended up by the late debates and primaries, it is easy to see what he was trying to say early on. In his often fuzzy answers in the early debates, sometimes so long in the buildup that he didn't get to the main point before his time was cut off, Obama tried to do two things. He grappled with the question at hand--paying for his health-care proposals, dealing with Pakistan--while also moving to the "real question" about the need for a "new kind" of politics.
The pairing of those answers was second nature by the last debates but not in the early rounds. In these he wasted time on hedges and footnotes, and did not manage to make his slight pause before answering seem like a sign of reflection, as it came to later on.
Again, knowing how things are ending up, it's easy to see a pattern looking back. John McCain, likely Hillary Clinton, has suffered from internal shifts and contradictions in his message and affect. Gracious, high-minded, and bi-partisan seeming in some cases. (The first half of his convention speech; interviews like the one mentioned here in which he pleads for a civil, high-road campaign; his generous remarks about Obama just now at the Al Smith dinner in New York; and of course the identity he cultivated with the press over the previous decade or two.) And on the other hand: the choice of Palin, the Bill Ayers-style campaigning, and most of all his ill-concealed contempt and choler through all three debates.
Obama, like all politicians, has trimmed or shifted on some issues and straddled some mismatched policies. But that it is so hard to find contradictions in his style, personality, and larger "work together" message either says something impressive about his discipline or shows something deeper about his essential nature. To persuadable voters, I think it has come across as "integrity" in the neutrally descriptive sense: that is, wholeness and consistency, as opposed to internal tension and contradiction. What it would mean in office we'll see if he wins. I think we've already seen that it is a huge electoral asset.