With three down and one to go, it’s clear that the 2008 debate season is fitting the pattern of every series since the early 1980s. No major, Gerald Ford-type gaffe, no obvious, Reagan-like knockout blow, but a careful, well-rehearsed negotiation for minute advantage, contests in which confidence, body language, expression, and even forms of address have proved as important as points of policy. Probably closest to the Clinton-Dole debates of 1996, in which an attack dog challenger tried to throw a clear poll-leader off his stride, the presidential contests have seen John McCain failing to dent Barack Obama’s increasing lead in the polls, a lead that probably owes more to the economic crisis than his performance on TV. The most compelling contest so far has been the one between the vice-presidential candidates. Watched by nearly 20 million more people than the first McCain/Obama debate, viewers switched on in the hope or fear of witnessing one or other of the candidates go down in flames.
For a while, the most intriguing aspect of the first debate was whether it would happen at all. McCain dramatically suspended his campaign supposedly to help deal with the crisis; however, Obama was not up for cancelling the debate, and McCain was faced with a no-win choice (do the debate and seem indecisive, refuse and look scared). The location also had rich significance: the University of Mississippi was the site of one of the defining moments of the civil rights struggle, when the black student James Meredith insisted, against violent opposition, on enrolling in the then all-white college in 1962.
It’s generally agreed that Obama won the first third of the debate (about the economic crisis), while McCain won the second two-thirds, on foreign policy. In his opening statement, Obama was able to stick his flag firmly into the middle of Main St, the ordinary, no-nonsense Middle America for whose support all four candidates have been competing ever since. Confidently progressing through a numerated answer (a risky tactic in a live debate), Obama concluded by locking himself to the middle classes and John McCain to George Bush.
Neither McCain’s folksiness nor his jokiness rang true (a quip question about a $3m federal programme to study the DNA of bears in Montana and whether it was about criminality or paternity fell flat). His repeated message was that Obama didn’t understand the foreign policy issues. In particular, he mocked Obama’s commitment to pursue Osama bin Laden into Pakistan: territory if necessary, as the kind of thing that presidents might do but shouldn’t say. Obama countered effectively on his promise to talk to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad (whose name McCain initially failed to pronounce), insisting that ‘without preconditions’ didn’t mean ‘that you invite them over for tea one day’, and holding his own in the most vigorous direct dialogue of the evening.
As in the Bush-Gore debates, the most significant element was the emotional interaction between the two men. For the first time in a podium debate, the present series allows direct conversation between the candidates, which the moderator Jim Lehrer spent much of the first half trying to encourage. Obama’s response was to turn directly to his opponent and call him ‘John’; McCain never referred to his rival as anything but ‘Senator Obama’ and never looked at him at all (when invited to speak directly to his opponent, he asked whether Obama had heard him the first time). One explanation put forward for Obama’s considerable lead among women after the debate is that women notice when someone don’t look at the person they’re speaking to, and don’t like it. Certainly, Obama’s ease with his opponent trumped his occasionally staccato speaking style, and the odd fluffs in the later, foreign policy questions.
The first presidential debate gained an unexpectedly low audience of 52.5 million Americans (higher than any since the 1992 Bush, Clinton and Perot debates, but a lot lower than any before that). Joe Biden’s vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin in St Louis was watched by just under 70 million people, the second largest number of people ever to watch a televised debate. The result was a triumph of debate preparation on both sides. The Biden camp clearly remembered George Bush Sr’s 1984 debate with Walter Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. Aware that Bush was in a no-win situation, Bush’s team prepared their candidate not to win but to avoid losing; and, in particular, to avoid saying anything that might appear condescending to the first ever woman vice-presidential candidate. Unfortunately, Bush’s early answers struck home against the nervous Ferraro, and he persuaded himself that he might be able to win. As a result, his syntax turned to spaghetti, his body language fractured, and an off-hand and off-message remark allowed Ferraro (a little unjustly, if truth be told) to accuse him of patronising her, the only line that anyone remembered from their encounter.
Nothing so unpredictable occurred in St Louis. Aware of her reputation for gaffes, Sarah Palin’s team had prepared a highly successful strategy. Before the debate proper began, Palin told Biden that it was nice to meet him and could she call him Joe. Her hometown folksy style (from frequent ‘darn it’s to the occasional ‘it ain’t so’) was supplemented by pointed reminders that Alaska is an energy-producing state. She contrasted ‘East Coast politicians’ with ‘mainstreeters like me’. Her repeated message was that she and McCain were mavericks; aware of the traditional, attack-dog role of the vice-presidential candidate, she accused Obama and Biden of waving the ‘white flag of surrender’ in Iraq. Ungoaded by Palin’s attack, the equally gaffe-prone Biden cited conversations in Home Depot, Katie’s restaurant and his local gas station, and referred to his opponent as ‘Governor Palin’ throughout. Early on, he tended to repeat his answers (‘let me say this again’) in a way that risked appearing patronising both to Palin and the audience; at the end he engineered a fine riff about John McCain’s stoutly predictable voting record in order to demolish his and Palin’s maverick status. Like Palin, he was able to present his senior partner’s arguments in more forthright terms. Obama had gently satirised John McCain’s refusal to say he would sit down in unconditional negotiations with … Spain; Biden looked directly into the camera and described McCain’s refusal as ‘incredible’.
The second presidential debate exceeded the ratings of the first by over 10 million (up from 52.4 million to 63.2 million). The Nashville debate was in John McCain’s favoured town hall meeting format, but in the event a highly-focused, less discursive Obama moved easily across the floor, while an uncomfortable McCain scribbled and prowled. Answering questions from the audience and others submitted by email, the candidates covered the same ground as before: the debate over hot-pursuit into Pakistan was virtually identical, as were McCain’s faux-folksy attacks on pork-barrel government programmes. He cited his American heroes – Teddy Roosevelt and ‘that wonderful Ronald Reagan’ – as if striving for validation rather than promising emulation. Most surprisingly, in a debate that was bound to be a partial repeat of the earlier encounter, McCain’s team didn’t appear to have sharpened his responses to earlier questions. Obama’s clearly had. First, he confronted McCain’s accusations of inexperience and ignorance with an engaging mixed metaphor (‘Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears’). Then he turned McCain’s repeated accusation from the first debate that he didn’t understand foreign policy issues to his own advantage, confessing that there were some things he didn’t understand, including ‘how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama bin laden and al-Qaida are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us’.
Moderator Tom Brokaw described the last question in Nashville (‘What don’t you know and how will you learn it?’) as a little zen. Both candidates answered that what they didn’t know was the unexpected, quickly reversing the question in order to reiterate their main, rhetorical points. Veteran debate watchers might have have expected McCain to use his final answer (to which Obama couldn’t respond) by repeating his running mate’s accusation that Obama was soft on terrorism, because he’d sat on a committee with a Chicago activist who used to be a leader of the Weather Underground. But he didn’t. Instead, the second debate will probably be remembered chiefly for the extraordinary moment when, apparently forgetting his opponent’s name, McCain referred to Obama as ‘that one’.
The third and final presidential debate takes place on Wednesday in Long Island. Conventional wisdom has it that, being ahead on points, Obama’s strategy will be defensive, while McCain will try to rattle him and throw him off message. However, that was McCain’s tactic in Nashville, and it didn’t work. Once again, it’s up to the invisible prep teams, with their mock questioners and surrogate opponents, to come up with something unexpected.