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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Notes on Last Night's Debate

Last night's debate was a great demonstration of how different the political styles of these two candidates are. I'd wager that one's opinion on who "won" depends on the style one prefers.

John McCain comes across as a direct man who is inclined to speak the thoughts that come into his head. He relies upon short, blunt sentences unadorned with adjectives and adverbs. This makes him seem like a man who lacks guile. This is a good quality for a politician to have, and that showed through last night.

But this style carries with it some problems. His answers to questions last night had a tendency to be unconnected from one another (as they have been generally in these debates). He's wont to toss in a reference to energy independence when the discussion is health care or housing or whatever. All in all, his responses tend not to hang together terribly well - thus diminishing their forcefulness.

Another problem for McCain is that he often references things that might go over people's heads. For instance, when talking about killing defense spending, he'll reference "DOD." That's a bit of an insider term, something that he's familiar with, but something that swing voters might not get. Similarly, he'll often talk about "reauthorization" and so on. He's been in the Senate for a long time, and he's picked up the language of its culture. This also diminishes his rhetorical thrust. Several times last night, notably during the abortion debate portion, McCain offered a retort to Obama, but he couched it in technical language, I was left thinking that it didn't work.

Barack Obama's style is quite different. He speaks in paragraph form. He gives lists and categories when answering his questions, and he's frequently inclined to place a specific subject in a broader context. More than anything, this has helped him ameliorate concerns that he's unprepared. This speaking style makes him seem like he knows what he is talking about.

However, his speaking style makes him seem professorial. I'd contrast him with Bill Clinton, who also relied on paragraphs, but who used them as a way to "talk." Obama doesn't talk so much as he "lectures." For sure, he's more "talkative" now than he was during the primaries - he had quite a number of good, foksy lines last night - but he still sounds like he's giving a college lecture.

He also sounds a little lawyerly. His paragraphs often contain "fine print" that needs to be considered. That means that, for as knowledgeable as he sounds, its difficult to identify his precise position. For instance, last night he spoke about how he would involve the federal government in local schools - but he introduced those comments by praising local control. It leaves one wondering exactly what his vision for public education is.

One thing that these two men seem to have in common: they don't like each other so much. This was a striking episode from last night:

Scheiffer: All right. Would you like to ask [Obama] a question?

McCain: No. I would like to mention that...

Obama gave as he good as he got on that front. Several times he chuckled at some point McCain was making. I noted this in particular during the back-and-forth about who's running the dirtier campaign. McCain closed one response by saying that his campaign is "about getting this economy back on track." Obama chuckled at that.

I think that neither man helped themselves with such behavior.

-Jay Cost