to Choose a Winner in Second Presidential Debate||
a champion debater at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, CA, argues that both
candidates performed well, but did not follow the rules of good debating by either
making the answers too complicated, or skirting the issues all together.
to read Chris's bio.
The second presidential debate was particularly hard to evaluate because although
Senator Kerry won most arguments, they were not necessarily the ones he needed
to win. On the contrary, it was President George Bush who accomplished his political
goals: putting in a strong showing and maintaining his ground.
Bush benefited greatly from the debate's structure. Unlike the first debate,
in which Bush seemed uncomfortably trapped behind his podium, Bush was allowed
to pace in time with his vocal cadence to create a dynamic atmosphere.
Kerry utilized movement as well, he never seemed as vigorous as Bush. Kerry made
good use of rhetorical catchphrases at the end of many of his speeches, using
specific statistics about Missouri to appeal to his local audience and highly
memorable imagery like ammo dumps, but he had an almost complete lack of facial
expression, rarely displaying any emotion except concern. Even when he looked
directly at the camera and pledged to not raise taxes for those earning under
$200,000 a year, his words failed to resonate with me.
For all his stylistic advantages, however, Bush did not respond to many questions,
instead diverting the debate into other issues or dancing around a direct answer.
While perhaps conducive to sticking to one strong message, this method unfortunately
leaves the audience dissatisfied, a particularly unpleasant feeling to have when
the audience members are the ones asking the questions. For example, when one
woman asked Bush how he planned to repair relations with other countries in the
future, he talked about how the right decisions are often unpopular-- if anything
indicating that he didn't intend to repair relations at all.
Bush faltered and seemed unprepared several times. When asked about the environment
or past mistakes, he spoke slowly, paused often, and slowed his walking to an
uncertain shuffle. In a few instances, he rambled on as best he could, grasping
at loose straws to continue the thread of his speech and even asking at one point
if his time was up. At another point, he began discussing the extremely dated
Dred Scott case in order to lengthen his answer about criteria for selecting Supreme
Court justices. Kerry, for his part, failed to point out Bush's failures to
answer questions. In the question of repairing relations, Kerry chose to respond
to Bush by discussing the strength of Iraqi forces. The follow-up speeches ended
up traveling the well-beaten path of whether the Iraq effort was a success or
not, rather than substantively discussing future plans to promote international
In this and other instances, Kerry's classical debate training
caused him to lose the bigger picture of the debate; he became so caught up in
answering Bush's arguments that he didn't even notice when those arguments had
nothing to do with the question at hand. As a result, Kerry ended up playing on
the President's turf for much of the debate. Even on issues like the environment,
where Kerry clearly has a strong upper hand, Bush's choice to discuss the effectiveness
of the Kyoto treaty led Kerry to pass up an opportunity to drive home his strong
Kerry assumed that the audience would keep track of
which arguments Bush never answered, and as a result, he didn't realize that he
conceded the terms of what issues are important. For example, Bush didn't even
attempt to answer Kerry's accusations of benefiting pharmaceutical companies at
the expense of the public, a huge point in Kerry's initial rebuttal; but because
Kerry didn't drive this point home in a follow-up speech, it disappeared from
the viewer's consciousness.
The thing that Kerry really needed to drive home was a clear position on his
future plans, yet he never left enough time to do so. Though constrained by time,
he could have certainly spent less time attacking President Bush and more time
elucidating his own plan for the United States.
First, Kerry still needed
to clarify some of his famous 'flip-flops.' Although he came out strong at the
beginning of the debate by clarifying his positions on the PATRIOT Act and No
Child Left Behind, he failed to fully explain his change of position on the $87
billion supplemental for Iraq, leaving the audience receptive to Bush's accusations
of political shifting. Kerry could have easily defended his record if he had been
more aggressive in pushing for follow-up rebuttals. Starting from the very first
question, however, Kerry allowed Bush to accuse him of political gaming without
even attempting a response.
Second, Kerry needed to spend more time explaining
how his own plans work. Although he certainly couldn't explain his entire tax
plan in two minutes, something more than "Go to JohnKerry.com" would
have been helpful. As it is, we're never quite sure exactly how his figures add
up. He talks about rolling back tax cuts for the rich and cutting corporate giveaways,
but doesn't give any numbers to show how these alone would be enough to cover
his new programs. He stated that Bush's estimate of the new programs' cost ($2.2
trillion) was based on "fuzzy math figures," but never gave a cost estimate
of his own. Kerry needs to include in his own plans the same kind of detail that
he loves to use when criticizing Bush. When he doesn't, Bush's vague counterarguments
about how the middle class will end up getting taxed as well begin to sound much
a Clear Winner|
Ultimately, it's difficult to decide who 'won' the debate. Bush didn't answer
arguments well, yet was able to maintain his ground with clear, strong speaking.
Kerry came out ahead in the end by meticulously answering all the arguments, yet
threatened to lose his message among the minutiae of refutation. The final impact
of this debate will depend on whether voters are able and willing to figure out
Kerry's arguments and to pull them through for him.
Christopher Lin, a senior at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Ca.