Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bring on the Debates!

Having expressed my serious reservations about the validity of a series of debates with rules agreed upon behind closed doors by the two major political parties, I still have to admit that I'm looking forward to watching the candidates square off against each other. Supporters of both sides have been boasting about the verbal abilities of their respective candidates. Will John McCain lose his temper, or appear to be hopelessly out-of-touch in his dotage? Will Barack Obama be too long-winded, and will he be able to dispel Republican accusations branding him as an "elitist"? It's clear that there are some clearly defined tasks for each politician. Some observers suggest that these debates could have a decisive effect on a close election.

One interesting dimension that has already been examined concerns the agreements that the sides made regarding the structure of these "contests". The McCain campaign had two notable desires for the debates. They wanted to have a tightly-structured format for the entire series, in order to compensate for their candidates' perceived disadvantages in loose and flowing exchanges. Both McCain and Palin rely quite heavily on previously-scripted jabs and "folksy" witticisms. They excel in their combined ability to deliver sound-byte worthy declarative statements on the issues. Obama on the other hand is commonly considered to be an excellent improvisational speaker. He also tends to include more nuance and complexity in his answers.

Obviously there is some give-and-take involved in the secret negotiations of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Apparently the compromise that the Republicans and Democrat reached was that the presidential debates would allow for more free-flowing interaction, while the VP debates would be tightly controlled. This reflects the special concern that Palin's handlers have about her debating abilities. The New York Times reports that "McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive." At first glance this decsion seems to favor the GOP. Palin will have less opportunity to make another potentially "fatal" gaffe.

However, a case could be made that Biden will be assisted by the extra structure as well. He is well-known for his penchant for delivering provocative statements and using more words than necessary to make his point. In addition, there will be less possibility that Biden will appear brutal in his aggressive attacks on Palin's "qualifications". One thing the Biden people worry about is the "damsel-in-distress" sympathy factor. On the other hand, the trade-off is that Obama will be free to exploit John McCain's weaknesses. The 72-year old has often looked confused and unfocused in recent television interviews. If Obama can avoid looking condescending, this should be a major advantage.


On the second issue, the McCain campaign has definitely received its preference. The first presidential debate was initially supposed to be focused on the economy. This has been the source of tremendous difficulty for the McCain/Palin ticket over the last couple of weeks. McCain has been a consistent deregulator throughout his political career, and he needs more than a few days to rehabilitate that image. Despite his baffling comments about the Spanish Prime Minister, many consider foreign policy a strength for McCain. Obama meanwhile needs to appear authoritative on an issue that has led many critics to bring up his relative "lack of experience". If he can convey that he understands what is at stake, he could enter the following debates (in which he is clearly stronger) unscathed.

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