Liberally Speaking10/09/08

Oct. 9, 2008

By Steve Mount

Great debates

Televised debates in U.S. presidential campaigns have a long and storied history. Over time, it is not the substance of the debates that we remember but instead the one-liners and the blunders.

Classic gaffes include George H.W. Bush’s impatient glances at his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s creepy hovering during a town-hall style debate with George W. Bush in 2000.

Classic one-liners abound, but Ronald Reagan supplied two memorable ones in a 1980 debate. His reprimand of “There you go again” when Jimmy Carter criticized Reagan’s position on Medicare is often replayed, as is his rhetorical question to the viewing audience, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

It would be a stretch to say that a gaffe in a debate is a death sentence to a campaign or that a great one-liner could seal the deal, but these, along with the other trivialities from the campaign trail, can add up to enough of a nudge to push fence-sitters into one camp or another.

So it is with this knowledge that I have watched the last three debates, looking for the critical mistake, the classic zinger. So far, though, the debates have been very even.

For the first debate, John McCain supplied plenty of drama, keeping everyone guessing if he’d even show up, given that he had nonsensically “suspended his campaign” so that he could work on the economic bail-out bill. Barack Obama vowed that he would appear at the University of Mississippi for the debate whether McCain showed up or not. In the end, McCain did appear, revealing the “suspension” as mere melodrama.

As I watched, I was impressed by most of the answers that both candidates gave, though I cynically let pass the answering of the question they heard rather than the one that was asked. Post-debate polls asking “Who won?” indicated a preference for Obama among undecided voters, but only just barely — McCain and “neither” were both close behind. Given that the debate’s primary focus was on foreign policy, seen as a McCain strong point, that Obama held his own was seen as a big plus by many pundits.

Going into last week’s vice presidential debate, many were expecting Sarah Palin to stumble. Considering her mangled answers to such softball interview questions as, “What newspapers do you read?” it was easy to expect a stumble. But by only answering the questions she wanted to, Palin was able to keep an even keel, even managing to wink at the camera a few times.

Joe Biden, known for being pedantic and verbose, managed to keep those impulses in check and avoided boring the audience to tears. He ended up being very eloquent and even folksy, threatening to take that mantle from Palin. Though a CNN poll indicated a Biden win, Palin did better than expected, which was seen as a plus for her ticket.

In the days since the VP debate, the McCain campaign has been reeling from declining poll numbers in battleground states and, as a result, it has decided to turn negative. Red flags starting going up in the blogosphere, and McCain’s own words from his 2000 campaign emerged: “If all you run is negative attack ads you don’t have much of a vision for the future or you’re not ready to articulate it.”

Perhaps trying to counter his own “lack of vision” critique, McCain came out swinging in Tuesday’s debate. While he roundly lambasted Obama for new spending proposals, McCain surprised everyone by proposing a mortgage bailout plan that is bound to cost more hundreds of billions of dollars.

Obama, who watched McCain speak throughout the debate with the bemused look of someone comfortable with his positions on the issues (and his positions in the polls), again held his own in a format that was predicted to play to McCain’s strengths.

After all was said and done, one CBS “instant poll” of undecided voters found that Obama again came out only slightly ahead of both McCain and “draw.” While surely discouraging for McCain, such results only lend credence to Obama’s articulated positions.

With one more debate to be heard, there is still time for a slip-up or a home run. History shows it might not make much of a difference — but that’s not to say they won’t keep trying.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at