Judge: Jason Jarvis
Scores: Obama 80 | McCain 73
Obama wins this debate in a clear decision for two reasons. First, his style was vastly superior to that of John McCain. Second, he was more coherent in presenting detailed policy answers to the questions posed by the moderator. This was the most exciting debate so far in terms of the types of questions that the moderator posed and the directness with which the two candidates addressed each other.
In evaluating style, there were sharp contrasts between Obama and McCain. In this debate there were longer times allotted for both answers and follow up questions. This allowed for deeper exchanges from the candidates. The key difference between McCain and Obama was their manner, highlighted throughout the debate by their non-verbal communication. It is clear that Senator McCain does not respect Senator Obama. Throughout the debate he interrupted Senator Obama and made faces during his answers. He also made many deep sighs and sarcastic smiles as Obama made answers to questions. This was particularly true in the discussion of recent attack ads made by both sides.
When discussing the issue of Bill Ayers, McCain made faces that were reminiscent of Al Gore in his debates against George W. Bush. In the discussion of education policy McCain wagged his finger at the camera in attacking an answer given by Obama. While answering a question about free trade McCain made a deep sigh when Obama discussed the free trade agreement with Colombia. Obama was responding to the McCain attack that he didn’t understand the issue because he hadn’t traveled to Latin America.
McCain’s non-verbal was consistent with general style throughout the debate. Over and over again he attacked Obama. He used rhetoric and language that was very aggressive. For example, when discussing economic policy McCain suggested that the Obama policy was “class warfare.” Returning to free trade he chided Obama suggesting that he would rather sit down and negotiate with Hugo Chavez rather than give free trade to Colombia. When Obama responded to McCain’s challenge to name one time that he had ever stood up to his party, McCain indicated that Obama was “not convincing,” although Obama identified three votes that he said were in contrast to the democratic majority or traditional democratic constituencies (trial lawyers on tort reform, environmentalists on bio-fuels, and teachers on education reform).
In contrast Obama was calm and overtly polite. He simply refused to be rattled by any attack that McCain made, and he avoided opportunities to engage in attacking rhetoric, perhaps because he feels he doesn’t need to do this as the current front-runner. The best example of this was during the discussion about Vice Presidential candidates. Despite a plethora of examples of Sarah Palin being weak on her knowledge of issues, Obama refused to criticize her, indicating that she was a “good politician.” McCain immediately attacked Joe Biden as being “wrong” on many foreign policy issues. In light of recent Palin rallies where the audience (and even Palin) has called Obama a terrorist, his restraint here was surprising.
The second key standard in which Obama won was on substantive issues and arguments. Obama was helped here because there was little discussion of foreign affairs other than on free trade. The critical difference between the two candidates was witnessed in how often Obama repeated 3 key themes: tax cuts for the middle class, development of energy independence and education. Obama started with those issues, went back to them at every possible opportunity in the debate, even if the question didn’t directly ask about them and concluded with them. McCain simply lacked a clear message here.
The conciseness and specificity of Obama was witnessed in their discussion of health care. Obama went line by line through a deep analysis of his policy. McCain responded by listing off a serious of random project that ranged from physical education classes to attacking Obama’s plan. At no point did he explain a coherent policy, nor did he ever answer Obama’s charge that the US Chamber of Commerce supports his plan.
Additionally, McCain spent a lot of time discussing a person named “Joe the Plumber,” a person that Obama had apparently met in Ohio at a campaign event. McCain continually went back to this person to suggest that this person represented the average American, who would suffer under an Obama administration. McCain’s repeated usage of this story became tired, and by the end of the debate it was somewhat odd. It would have been much more persuasive to provide concrete policy examples, as opposed to a folksy story about a man no one really knows, even if he is a real person.
The final area of questioning that was significant was a discussion of recent attack ads run by both candidates. Obama did a good job of answering questions about Bill Ayers, noting that he had been on a board with him that included prominent Republicans, and was even funded by a Reaganite. His discussion of ACORN was a bit muddled. However, he did a good job of noting that Ayers would not be a member of his administration. To his credit, McCain also did a good job of finally attempting to neutralize Obama’s constant suggestion that he is George Bush by pointing out that he and George Bush are different people, and suggesting that if Obama wanted to run against George Bush that he should have run for President four years ago.
This debate was not very close, and was a clear win for Obama.