In the First Debate, Who Was More Persuasive?
Like much of America, we watched the first of three presidential debates on Friday night. And we’ve heard a lot of conversation about it over the weekend. I’ve been asked repeatedly for my opinion, so here it is. I give points to both sides, and I think the net result is a tie, though Obama did better at behaving Presidential (authoritative, likable, reciprocal), and McCain did better at scoring points.
What Obama Did Right:
Barack Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of the foreign policy challenges facing the country. In what many considered to be his weakest area coming into the debates, he showed viewers that he understands our nation’s place in the world, and the consequences of the choices we make in our foreign policy. Style wise, he was more likeable than he might have been (with his tendency to sound like a college professor) and he was consistent in two ways – with his own statements throughout the debate, and with expectations people have of someone seeking the office of the Presidency.
Obama was more comfortable to watch than McCain. He came across as reasonable, intelligent, and capable.
What McCain Did Right:
First, McCain showed up. It would have been a major mistake for him to be missing in action at this debate, which was a real possibility based on his statement last Wednesday that he’d skip the debate unless the Bush proposed Bailout legislation was completed in time. And McCain kept hammering home a few bullet points. He began more than a few of his statements by branding Obama as ‘not getting it,’ or ‘lacking experience.’ On a strictly emotional level, this kind of consistency builds up an idea in the mind of viewers, and each new pass at it reinforces the idea. By the end of the debate, the point has been made and he no longer needs to say it for the idea to linger anyway. How did he come across? See below (what McCain did wrong).
What Obama Did Wrong:
Obama made the terrible error of saying “John is right,” several times throughout the debate. One never concedes that the opponent is right, unless he intends to use that as a setup for saying, “but here’s how he’s wrong.” The net result of his repeating these words is that by the end of the debate, the two messages left to voters are, “Obama is inexperienced. And John is right.”
Obama did manage to use a ‘rule of threes’ on John being wrong about Iraq, and gave the memorable line that “John, you talk about Iraq like the war started in 2007, when it actually started in 2003”, but he only did this once. It would have been far more effective to have made this his mantra throughout the debate.
Obama began too many of his opening statements with verbal hesitancy. He course corrected quickly, so it wasn’t as noticable as it might have been. He spent too much time talking about the past, without articulating the values that would govern his presidency in the future. He also left numerous opportunities on the table to point out the inconsistencies in his opponent’s record. On torture, on the environment, and on Iraq, Obama failed to make the case that McCain’s so called ‘maverick’ qualities put him all over the map on numerous issues, which would have called his judgment more clearly into focus for voters.
Obama also failed to rattle McCain. This to me was his biggest failing in the debate. McCain stayed on script and Obama let him. If ever there was a chance to expose McCain’s reputed foul temper, it passed right on by in this debate. Obama would be wise to spend a little time thinking about how to throw off his opponent in the next two debates if he wants to win over new voters to his side. It can’t be that hard, because McCain’s grandstanding on the bailout legislation, flip flopping on important issues, and poor pick in Palin are all fair game that deserve to be highlighted in order to give voters a chance to make an informed decision that will effect their future for a long time to come.
What McCain Did Wrong:
I still can’t understand why McCain was unable to make eye contact with Obama. It seemed petulant, rude, and the opposite to the quality of leadership that McCain claims to have that would allow him to reach across the aisle. It also gave me the idea that if he had looked at Obama, it would have thrown him off script, because I suspect that his moderate tendencies, placed on hold throughout this presidential quest, would have surfaced in a moment of person-to-person contact with his opponent.
McCain also seemed locked into giving certain answers regardless of what the questions were, a troubling illustration of inflexibility in thought and action that actually increases the association voters might make with the Bush administration.
This was particularly obvious early on in the debate, an important moment since judgments tend to made early on. When asked about the bailout, he started talking about earmarks. Obama was able to point out that $18 billion in earmarks is important, but not as important as $300 billion in tax cuts and $700 billion in government bailouts.
McCain smiled and chuckled whenever Obama spoke. That same kind of behavior didn’t go over well with voters when Gore did it in 2000, and I’m guessing it didn’t go over well with voters this time around, either. McCain filibustered in rambling answers on several of the questions, and several of the opportunities for back and forth.
McCain came across as a tense, surly, rude and petulant guy, not flexible, not thoughtful, and not authentic.
What Happens Next?
I think the debate is therefore a tie. It was unlikely to persuade anyone to think differently about either candidate, though it is possible that a few might have seen Obama in a better light because of his authenticity and willingness to treat his opponent with respect.
The real contest is coming up, between the shy and wilting flower that is Sarah Palin (at least that’s the way McCain’s campaign has handled her…keeping her away from the press so she doesn’t sound any more ignorant than she already has) and the experienced but verbally agressive Joe Biden, whose penchant for saying the wrong thing and having to apologize later is well known. It should be more fun to watch, more exciting, with more fireworks, and more potential to persuade undecided voters than anything we saw on Friday night.
As to the main contenders for the title and position, I’m guessing that at least one of them is reviewing the tape, noticing the missed opportunities, and rethinking their strategy for dealing with the next two debates.
What did you think of the first debate? I’d love to hear your comments.
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.