By Eric Thurm
At an event at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, 2012 Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman told students and moderator Juan Williams that the Republican primary debates had a “low level of discussion” and criticized the nature of primary debates as incentivizing “red meat” in all debate answers. That’s unsurprising (and we’re almost at the 2012 debates), but the general election debates were likely more important than the primary debates in 2012, even though the primary debates seemed like a bigger story at the time. The 2008 election was a different story. The McCain/Obama debates weren’t as compelling as they could have been, and they’re events you might well (hopefully) remember. And President Obama’s first presidential election was largely shaped by the primary debates. Thankfully, the most memorable primary debates on both sides were actually held back to back at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, just before the first in the nation primary.
Holding the debates back-to-back makes for a fascinating look at how tuned-in political junkies pay attention to early parts of the political process, as well as allowing for direct comparison between the candidates in the same setting hours apart. The Democratic debate seems to have attracted 9.36 million viewers, while the Republican debate drew 7.35 million – I can’t find the press release that was the original source (the link is broken, directed from a reference), but if that number is true it’d be a pretty sizable audience for a primary debate, one that most NBC shows (and most network programming), would kill for. The dual showcase also demonstrated how Obama and McCain had somewhat similar debating strategies, which would ultimately benefit Obama in the fall.
For most of the election cycle, the 2008 Democratic primaries began as a contest to topple New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the seeming party heir apparent and unstoppable force rolling through to the White House (not a situation we’re ever going to encounter again, right?). Eventually, the primary turned into the more liberal, younger candidate Obama’s long, slow process of overcoming first the other candidates, including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, now-Vice President Biden, and general disgrace John Edwards, and then Senator Clinton. Throughout the course of the primary, there were 26 debates. That’s actually more than the Republicans had during the 2012 primaries, but each of them was individually less memorable considering the lack of insane, circus-like statements.
The most memorable moment of those debates did, however, expose some of Obama’s weaknesses as a debating candidate. Obama had just won the Iowa caucuses in a stunning upset that placed him in contention as the major opposition to Senator Clinton before the New Hampshire debate Jan. 5. Clinton was suffering from long-term image problems in respect to her perceived “likability” that had dogged her candidacy (shades of Girls, etc.). Moderator Charles Gibson directly confronted this issue in a debate question that may have been a bit blunt, particularly because he seemed to buy into the “likability” issue as a real concern. Obama’s response – “You’re likable enough, Hillary” – was viewed as the candidate’s first major misstep.
“You’re likable enough” is demonstrative of both President Obama’s strengths and weaknesses as a debater. It was a smart, reasonably funny response made off the cuff, in contrast to many other past and present candidates incapable of remaining intellectually nimble. But it was also caustic, seemingly professorial, and most importantly, slightly condescending to Clinton. As the Denver debate in 2012 demonstrated, an Obama who seems condescending and uninterested in being at the debate is an unsuccessful Obama. Senator Clinton’s response, on the other hand, was close to warm, but not quite – compare her slightly stilted answer to the more assured, confident Secretary of State in the hearings she endured on the Benghazi attacks.
That debate may have been Obama’s worst moment of the primary debates, but it was also a bad debate for moderators. Gibson was widely criticized for being “out of touch,” particularly his claim that letting the Bush tax cuts expire for incomes above $250,000 would harm a family of two public school teachers. Gibson may have overshadowed Obama by illustrating that although the performances of the candidates are for the most part determinative in how they are perceived; moderating these debates is not a completely neutral activity – often questions can be leading or come from places of inaccurate information that allow for easy answers from certain candidates.
The last Democratic debate, again featuring Gibson as moderator along with George Stephanopoulos (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was my boss when I interned last summer at ABC’s This Week), again drew fire for shoddy moderating. Gibson and Stephanopoulos asked questions about Senator Obama’s habit of not wearing flag pins (which was important, politically, once upon a time) and Senator Clinton’s claim that she had ducked sniper fire in Bosnia. These questions brought certain issues to the forefront, solidifying certain perceptions of the candidates regardless of how they eventually answered.
But the more palpable effect of the debates was a cumulative and constant sharpening of Senator Obama’s debate prowess. There were a lot of debates – Hillary Clinton was no slouch in the debates, and the process of continually facing off against her led Obama to improve his abilities as a debater – to the point where he was ready and extremely prepared for the general election debates. Obama is an excellent orator in all other circumstances, particularly when he is able to reiterate prepared talking points (as benefits most politicians). So though the more impromptu parts of the debate format, such as responding to a candidate Romney tacking hard to the center, may have been the most difficult parts of Obama’s debating career, the Clinton debates were excellent opportunities for him to sharpen his ability to use those talking points.
Before the general election though, there were also the Republican primary debates. The 2008 Republican primary seems in hindsight like a confirmation of the “next in line” theory, in which the Republican who is perceived to be next for the nomination will get it (see: Mitt Romney), but Senator McCain’s path to the nomination was anything but clear at the time. After beginning the nominating process as the frontrunner, largely on the basis of his strong challenge to George Bush in 2000, McCain’s campaign foundered. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was perceived as the candidate to beat.
The Republican version of the Saint Anselm debate was also extremely important in the shift in momentum leading McCain to the nomination. Check out this portion of the debate, which doesn’t contain any particularly memorable moments, but does exemplify the reasons why McCain was able to return from his nadir to win the nomination, as well as showcasing Governor Mitt Romney’s debating in his first outing as a presidential candidate.
Surprised McCain is not present at all in this clip? Don’t be. McCain’s campaign thrived off the implosion and sniping of the other candidates, each of who attacked each other until McCain seemed to be the universal second choice. Several candidates attack Governor Romney, including Mike Huckabee, who was widely seen to be competing with Romney for conservative voters (how times change), Romney attacks Ron Paul, and Fred Thompson attacks everyone. More importantly, the debate is centered on foreign policy in general and the Iraq troop surge in particular, a focus McCain benefited from immensely as one of the strongest candidates on foreign policy concerns. McCain doesn’t answer a question until another question on foreign policy in the next part of the debate, at about four minutes in here. His answer is concise, strong, and unobjectionable, without engaging in any serious and potentially deleterious attacks:
Though he might not have been in quite the same position, it’s worth noting that McCain’s strategy of “Living Off The Land” with the free media exposure from debates is, broadly speaking, the same strategy used by most of the minor candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2012 primaries, though to far less success.
Eventually, the focus of the campaign turned to the general election debates: McCain versus Obama. This is the easiest part to remember, so I’ll try to be brief. There were three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, and they weren’t particularly interesting. Obama was a well-established candidate in debates, and was capable of maintaining his defenses in a way that made it tough to set him off balance. Notably, McCain’s strengths in the primary debates were also contingent on his defensive skills and unwillingness to directly attack.
Here’s the full first debate, moderated by Jim Lehrer, as well as a shorter summary that demonstrates the candidates’ styles well. The debate was originally meant to focus on foreign policy (which had helped McCain in the past), but coming in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, much of it turned to focus on the economy, a topic that benefited President Obama consistently during the campaign:
It, and the second debate, didn’t include much by way of gaffes. Instead, the silliest part of the debates came in the final debate, which saw repeated mentions of Joe The Plumber from Senator McCain, back when everyone thought he was politically relevant. It’s possible to see that silliness as a forerunner of the increased (or perceived increased) focus on minutiae and the details of individual gaffes and misstatements, but it might make more sense to view the general election debates as a clash between broadly competent candidates trying to maintain a status quo until McCain realized the fundamentals of the election were simply not going to support him.
Previously on Debate Night: Bush/Kerry, 2004