TOPICS > Politics

Debate Performances Reflect Candidates’ Style, Rhetoric

October 16, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
Loading the player...
Presidential hopefuls focused their words on aiding America's middle class in their final debate while maintaining very different temperaments. Experts look at how the candidates' rhetoric and approach foreshadow what's ahead in the final weeks of the campaign.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Last night’s debate highlighted how the presidential candidates have sought to portray themselves and respond to each other throughout this general election. Here’s that “Joe the plumber” exchange.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: A couple days ago, Sen. Obama was out in Ohio, and he had an encounter with a guy who’s a plumber. His name is Joe Wurzelburger.

Joe wants to buy the business that he’s been in for all these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day. And he wanted to buy the business, but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes.

What you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.

BOB SCHIEFFER, Debate Moderator: Is that what you want to do?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: That’s what Joe believes.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: He’s been watching some ads of Sen. McCain’s. Let me tell you what I’m actually going to do.

I think tax policy is a major difference between Sen. McCain and myself. And we both want to cut taxes; the difference is who we want to cut taxes for.

Now, Sen. McCain, the centerpiece of his economic proposal is to provide $200 billion in additional tax breaks to some of the wealthiest corporations in America. ExxonMobil and other oil companies, for example, would get an additional $4 billion in tax breaks.

RAY SUAREZ: With me now to discuss what more we learned about how the candidates present themselves and their views is Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s written over a dozen political science books, including some focusing on debates and rhetoric.

And Kathleen Kendall is a research professor at the University of Maryland. She focuses on American presidential campaign communication.

Clarification, confusion on issues

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Annenberg Public Policy Center
There were philosophical differences on the economy that were clarified, and you heard that with your voter group. There were also differences on health care, on trade, on education, on abortion clarified in this debate.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jamieson, if essentially these debates are a series of questions asked of candidates about how they would do their job and what they intend to do, well, how did the people make out? Did they get good answers? What was the quality of the argument?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Annenberg Public Policy Center: Well, first, what you saw in your tape of voters is that people come into debates with partisan dispositions and very strong opinions.

Those who already favor one candidate will take different things out. They'll be selectively perceiving the things that benefit their candidate, and they'll be more critical of the other side.

But what the debate does is gives those who know a lot about policy new information and those who don't know much information, as well.

There were philosophical differences on the economy that were clarified, and you heard that with your voter group. There were also differences on health care, on trade, on education, on abortion clarified in this debate. So there's the capacity to learn important issue distinctions.

There are also some areas in which people probably came out confused. If you came out of this debate thinking that Sen. Obama was supporting a single-payer plan, well, that's not right.

And if you came out thinking that what Sen. McCain was going to do is tax your employer-given health benefits and not give you as a family $5,000 to offset those taxes, or $2,500 for an individual, well, you were misled, too.

So some clarification on issues, but also some confusion, some clarification about philosophical differences.

How candidates deliver messages

Kathleen Kendall
University of Maryland
Last night, (McCain) was quite changed in his physical delivery in that he looked right at Sen. Obama. He smiled. He also praised him.

RAY SUAREZ: Looking at last night, what would you say about the language the men chose to use to describe themselves and their opponent?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: One of the things that debates do is help us understand the person who would be president. And so what you saw was Sen. McCain going to his background to describe some things that I'm sure most voters didn't know, for example, that he supported the Patients' Bill of Rights.

You also saw Sen. Obama going back to one of those charge-countercharges in the campaign. What did he do with school reform in Chicago with William Ayers? To signal that that was a mainstream effort, he cites Republicans who were involved in the process.

They're using language, "Republicans involved in the process," "Patients' Bill of Rights," to signal a centrism on the part of both candidates.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Kendall, I guess along with what they said, you tried to assess how they said it.

KATHLEEN KENDALL, University of Maryland: Yes. This is one of the classical canons of rhetoric, one of the things that has been studied since classical times, the delivery of the candidates, whether they -- how they used their voice, how they stand, how they gesture, how they -- the sound of their voice, their eye contact, all of those things are ways that we read meaning into what people say.

And it's about the easiest thing for people to look at because it's visual. And so it's the first thing that people tend to talk about.

In fact, I was surprised and impressed that the focus group that we just heard did not talk extensively about the delivery, because that's the most superficial thing, but it's also the first thing people notice.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what was an important contrast for you?

KATHLEEN KENDALL: Well, for example, in the first debate, John McCain was criticized by the media and by the public for looking down all the time. He was looking at his notes. He was taking notes. And he didn't look at Sen. Obama.

Now, just as Professor Jamieson has said, we perceive things in different ways depending on what we expect. And so you could interpret that as being a sign of evasiveness, looking down, because in our society we place a premium on direct eye contact.

Or you could say, well, maybe he wasn't very well-prepared that night, because, remember, he flew back to Washington to work on the tax -- on the crisis, financial crisis. Maybe he didn't have much time to prepare.

RAY SUAREZ: And last night?

KATHLEEN KENDALL: Or hostility. You might read that as hostility. So there were different interpretations.

Last night, he was quite changed in his physical delivery in that he looked right at Sen. Obama. He smiled. He also praised him. These things are linked, the words and the delivery, can be linked, of course. So there's a much friendlier kind of atmosphere.

Interpreting body language

Kathleen Kendall
University of Maryland
One of the things about the debates that is unique -- and this has to do with delivery, but the whole thing -- is that you see two candidates side by side. And this is the only occasion where you see that.

RAY SUAREZ: Bob Schieffer alluded to it last night, Professor Jamieson, that maybe these men wouldn't be willing to say to each other's faces the things that they had been saying about each other over the airwaves.

Is it different when the two men are not only on the same stage, but, in fact, seated just a few feet from each other, and looking at each other, and speaking to each other? Is the nature of the confrontation different?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, it's very difficult when you're at very close quarters to say anything that's uncivil to somebody else and about somebody else. And as a result, we should encourage more of those kinds of debates, rather than less of them.

RAY SUAREZ: At one moment, there was a split screen, at several moments during last night's debate, and TV tends to create those high contrast moments. Does a candidate have to keep in mind his physical appearance when tens of millions of people are watching?

KATHLEEN KENDALL: Yes, I think that may account for the fact that McCain -- and I've seen other candidates write a great deal, because at least they look like they're doing something, knowing that the camera might be on them at any moment.

One of the things about the debates that is unique -- and this has to do with delivery, but the whole thing -- is that you see two candidates side by side. And this is the only occasion where you see that. That's one of the special things about the debate.

And, of course, you see the moderator, too, so you have three people present. And so the -- at all the other speaking occasions, you just have one candidate, so that people can learn about these individuals, seeing them side by side, and hearing what they have to say.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that close quarter and the fact that it is such a high-stakes moment make the use of sarcasm, humor, even flashes of anger potentially riskier or hold potentially greater payoff?

KATHLEEN KENDALL: I think it makes it riskier. And you see different interpretations, particularly of the way McCain, in his attacks on Obama, used his voice and his facial expressions, so with some people interpreting him as not only aggressive, but also mean-spirited when he would attack Sen. Obama, whereas Obama was described as calm, and cool, and quiet.

And so it sounds like there's a sort of level of tolerance that people have for aggressiveness or a sort of punchy, attacking style in a seated format.

Now, I must say, that was also a criticism in the other formats where, for example, you had a more formal setting, with the podiums, the speakers behind the podiums in the first debate. The second debate was the town hall debate.

But in the first one, too, Sen. McCain was criticized for being -- having a kind of mean-spirited tone. But others could just say that's toughness. And so the interpretation is different.

Weaving a symbol through the issues

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Annenberg Public Policy Center
Joe the plumber helped Sen. McCain control part of the agenda of the debate, but Joe the plumber also set up a very concrete example that both campaigns could now play through in the following days.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jamieson, John McCain said today that the star of last night's debate was Joe the plumber. And as a piece of persuasion, as someone who sifts through language and tries to understand why people bring up the things they do, what role was Joe the plumber playing last night?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Joe the plumber helped Sen. McCain control part of the agenda of the debate, but Joe the plumber also set up a very concrete example that both campaigns could now play through in the following days.

And what we're going to find out -- as the fact-checkers sort the world out -- is that, if Joe the plumber only makes $40,000 a year, he, in fact, benefits more from Sen. Obama's plan than he does from Sen. McCain's.

If, however, he founds his business and he makes more than $250,000, well, you know, he's going to see a tax increase from Sen. Obama.

And on the health care plan, we found an area of real confusion, because Sen. Obama hasn't specified when people are going to be paying a fine, how many people have to be in a business to call it a small business, how much dollar amount does the business have to have to be classified small business.

So when Sen. Obama says, "Well, small businesses are exempted, Joe, don't worry." The fact-checkers and news people are now saying, "But, Sen. Obama, you haven't specified what constitutes a small business." That may actually advance this dialogue.

So Joe has made concrete very abstract proposals. And as a result, I think he's advanced this process very importantly.

RAY SUAREZ: Made them concrete, but also as someone, as a symbol, as a living symbol, was he meant to be evocative of a certain kind of American, just the fact that we were calling him "Joe the plumber"?

KATHLEEN KENDALL: Joe the plumber. We all know plumbers. And so, of course, we can all relate to that. And I think it goes way beyond a sound bite and that this would be the best-remembered of three debates because of Joe the plumber, because we can all -- the term was used many times. We can all identify with Joe the plumber.

And as Professor Jamieson has talked about, it was woven through the issues that were discussed, having to do with the economy, having to do with the positions of the different candidates.

The way Sen. Obama picked up on it -- you're right, Sen. McCain changed the agenda by bringing him up, but Sen. Obama then joined in with Joe the plumber.

So I think stylistically and in terms of the arguments, and even the organization, Joe the plumber had an influence on last night's debate.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Kendall, Professor Jamieson, thank you both.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You're welcome.

KATHLEEN KENDALL: You're welcome.