Some Post-Debate Thoughts from a Retired Debate Coach


Jason and I have a different take on the debate tonight, I think, though we really won’t know who won until the SNL parody tomorrow night.  In general, it was a much more competitive debate than we have seen in the past two campaigns, but I my  sense is that Barack Obama had a strong, but certainly not perfect performance. Senator McCain is a strong debater as well, but certainly didn’t do anything to suggest that he has the temperament to be President.

On the Issues

Let’s be honest. Barring a major Ford-style gaffe, the issues are rarely the most important part of these debates. Neither Obama nor McCain staked out anything new tonight on the issues, with both sticking pretty close to where they have been for the past two years.

On Iraq, I think Obama was most effective when going directly after McCain. His attack on McCain’s position on the war was dead-on, a textbook example of going after one of his opponent’s perceived strengths:

John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.

You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.

Given the grandstanding about the credit crisis this week, it was certainly telling that Senator McCain spent almost all of the time allotted to economic issues talking about his pet issue, earmarks. I certainly hope that both candidates are forced to speak in more depth about the bailout as the campaign continues.

On the Presentation/Persona

I can’t imagine that this debate will help Senator McCain with undecided voters. While we didn’t get to see any of the legendary McCain temper, his refusal to look directly at Senator Obama or even the camera at times was a tactical (or was that strategic?) blunder. It’s one thing for Senator McCain to claim to be bipartisan in his political philosophy, but hard to make it seem convincing when he seemed hardly able to veil his contempt for his opponent.

McCain’s constant attacks on Obama’s experience and knowledge will certainly play well with the base, who already believes that narrative. I just don’t think it will persuade voters in the middle, especially in the context of tonight’s debate, when Obama demonstrated an impressive knowledge about foreign policy. It was an especially risky strategy for McCain, given his difficulties with the names of the the leaders of Pakistan, Iran, and Spain.

I thought Obama seemed confident, and his command of facts was impressive. After the past eight years, the U.S. might just be ready for someone who’s unafraid to appear cerebral, and even cool in his decision making.  I appreciated that, and his willingness to acknowledge places of agreement with Senator McCain. In fact, that sounded almost bipartisan.

Overall, my impression was that Obama was assertive and confident, while McCain was aggressive. I’d rather have the former. On the other hand, I can understand how some people might have been frustrated with Obama tonight. To some extent, it wasn’t dissimilar from his problem at the end of the Democratic primary, when he couldn’t land the knockout punch against Hilary Clinton.

That being said, I don’t Obama should change his strategy in the next two debates. I think the polls are going to show a widening lead for Obama, and it’s likely that McCain will become more aggressive in each successive debate, hoping to land a knockout. Obama’s best bet is to stay above the fray, even if the Chris Matthews of the world want him to show more emotion.

I’ve got faith that the American public has learned that an emotional response isn’t what we want from a President anymore; we’d like a little cool rationality.

John McCain: C+

Barack Obama: A-

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  • Don… I agree with most, if not all, of your points. I have now been discussing this debate to death with a number of people and perhaps I had too high of expectations of this debate. After watching Gore and Kerry, two smart, well-spoken men, let Bush get away with mediocre performances, I was ready for a real kick-in-the-gut debate. It wasn’t that for either side…

  • 100% correct. I often want Obama to get down in the mud and fight but try to remind myself to stick to the strategy that has gotten him this far. I fully believe that McCain laid down several traps with intentions to land a ‘knockout.’

    Remember the line about Obama not understanding the definition of ‘rich.’ The reference to Palin. The torture comments. I think those were all out there to coax Obama down a shady alley.

    I wanted blood, but I think Obama did the right thing overall.

  • I also was a bit frustrated last night, as I watched McCain lie brazenly. I thought Barrack passed on so many opportunities to jump down McCain’s throat.

    But, I have to remember that I’m already backing Obama: these debates–a little over a month from election day & following what seems like the endless primary season–seem to be set up more to reassure the undecideds than to placate the committed. Had Obama gone after McCain with gusto, he would have appeared ‘risky’ and ‘angry’ (an especially loaded term for a black candidate.

    So, I thought that Obama came across as intelligent, informed, gracious & Presidential, which was what he needed to do to reassure the undecideds.

    One interesting thing is how many people (including pundits) have picked up on McCain’s inability to look Obama in the eyes. Most have taken that to indicate disdain for Obama (combined with McCain’s soundbite that ‘Obama doesn’t understand…’), but I figure that it was also hard for McCain to look Obama in the eyes while spewing lie after lie about Barrack.

    (And, I did love how earlier in the week Obama invited McCain to come on down & debate as there was no reason for McCain to be ‘fearful’. Heh, ‘fearful’…perfect word choice. Got the geezer to show up.)

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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