Style versus style: The substance of the 2012 presidential debates

Style versus style: The substance of the 2012 presidential debates

Denver : CO : USA | Oct 03, 2012 at 10:05 AM PDT
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Obama, Romney Prep for Debate

DENVER -- Tonight the 2012 general election debates begin, and for the first time two contrasting debates styles will be on display side-by-side. Style is the operative term here, as both the president and his opponent seem to have an abundance of savoir-faire in dealing with the media.

In 2008, during the general election debate in Hempstead, N.Y., between then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, America was introduced to "Joe the Plumber" and a younger, more vibrantly optimistic future president.

"Obama was much more adult, in my opinion, during that debate" said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV” and journalism professor at Northeastern University This is because Obama, according to Schroeder was able to keep "cool" and articulate his plans well in the face of a determined, and at times, erratic McCain. Schroeder made his comments Wednesday on "Washington Journal."

A low point for Obama, though, was a debate against then-Sen. Hilary Clinton during the 2008 election cycle, in which the "likability" of each candidate was discussed. Clinton, framed as the cold, emotionless stateswoman, expertly and to the laughter of the audience, handled the unorthodox situation. In the briefest of moments, with only a few laughs and friendly gestures, she showed her ability to be human. Obama on the other hand, appeared disinterested and unconcerned, almost self-satisfied in his response.

"Oh, Hilary, you're likeable enough," Obama said, without making eye contact, or indeed even looking up from his debate notes.

At perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of debate style, is former Massachussetts governor Mitt Romney. During the 1994 Massachussetts Senate debate, Romney forcefully rebuffed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy on Kennedy's claim that Romney didn't support healthcare benefits for his employees. Forceful, yes, and perhaps even accurate, but according to Warren Decker, director of debate at George Mason University, ultimately ineffective.

In that debate, Kennedy was able to redirect the rebuttals concerning the personal attacks on Romney's economic policy and business history and recast them as being too self-absorbed and unconcerned with the issues salient to the public.

"I'm bothered by the pain of the people of Massachussetts, while you're frustrated about the pain of personal attack ads," Former Senator Ted Kennedy responding to Mitt Romney during those debates in 1994.

This is important, because as Decker further points out, "A lot of it (the debates) is stylistic. It's how they're (the debaters) saying what they're saying more than what they're actually saying."

In light of the many styles that will inevitably be brought to any debate forum, Ron Klain, former Chief of Staff for current vice president Joe Biden and former vice president Al Gore, has developed a list of debating tips for potential candidates not only for the presidency, but any office in the land:

Debating Tips

  1. Develop a list of three (3) items you must say
  2. Study what your opponent has been saying
  3. Practice a lot
  4. Prepare to attack and counter-attack
  5. Assume you are on camera at all times
  6. Don't debate the moderator, which can look whiny
  7. Begin answers with "yes" or "no"

It'll be interesting to see which, if either, candidate used these tips for the nights debate topic, "domestic policy."

If you like to write about U.S. politics and Campaign 2012, enter "The American Pundit" competition. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and November. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded after the November election.

Written by Benjamn Burton Jr.

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Benjamin Burton Jr. is based in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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