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What Makes a Presidential Debate “Great”?

October 17, 2012

Last night’s presidential debate had me nearly passing out from nervous tension. George F. Will, on the other hand, said that “[i]t was a very good fight,” reminded us that he has “seen every presidential debate in American history since 1960” and argued that last night’s “was immeasurably the best.” And, while the debate may not have done my blood pressure any favors, I can certainly see why someone would call this debate the best. But then, Will also left me wondering, on what basis can we call a debate good, or even the “best?”

While I write a more extended analysis of some moments from Tuesday night’s debate, I’d like to hear what our readers think makes a debate “great.” Is it the tension? The substance? The style? Was it perhaps the sense that, after Obama’s widely panned performance in the first debate, this debate really mattered to the election?

Or was it just, you know, binders full of women?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn Commer permalink
    October 18, 2012 11:38 pm

    This is a good question, Doug, because there was definitely more going on that made the debate “great” than just binders full of women. I think the tension was key, which was supported by two aspects of the debate: the town hall format and Crowley’s moderating.

    The town hall format allowed for a different kind of delivery and presence from both candidates, especially Obama. For example, following his weaker performance at the last debate, Obama demonstrated a renewed sense of confidence, evident in the way he walked the floor, smiling to show he knew he was doing well, and using humor to deflect Romney’s jabs (“I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours” was particularly on point).

    Additionally, compared to the last debate in which the candidates stood behind podiums, the town hall format allowed the candidates to physically move around, making them appear vulnerable, but also uninhibited. The fact that the candidates sometimes stood close enough to each other that they could have thrown punches—but didn’t—added tension. In this way, the debate seemed “great” because there was tension in terms of what was said, but also in how both candidates delivered their remarks.

    Secondly, compared to Jim Lehrer’s moderating at the last debate, Crowley came across as more in control. When the moderator gets over-run by the candidates, the debates feel pointless to most audiences and too messy to enjoy. It’s like trying to play a game when everyone stops playing by the rules; the debate quickly stops being fun because the audience can no longer see skill, just bluster. Though the candidates often talked over Crowley, she stood her ground, and even fact-checked Romney. Fact-checking is something that most viewers want to see happen during these debates, but it doesn’t; watching Crowley step in like that added a new level of excitement, as evidenced by the (forbidden) applause from the audience.

    I’m curious to hear what others think about this topic, too. Any new or even rival perspectives on what made this debate “great”?

  2. Susan Ryan permalink
    October 19, 2012 1:49 am

    an important question one, Doug.
    “Great” as in what “wins a presidential contest?”
    Or “great” as in “what brings us closer to solutions for particular problems?”
    in our discipline, really “great” debaters do not incite the invective; they facilitate a discussion, collaborate for a solution/response (or at least, these are standards debates are evaluated in communication).

    but the american political arena is different. i use “arena” purposefully here because there is something very sportsmen competitive about presidential politics. we have our team colors (red/blue), our mascots (donkey/elephant), our “highlights” (zingers), scoreboard (polls the day after), and the loser complains about the ref (moderator). so i think Will called this debate the “greatest” because it most captured that particular spirit of American politics.

    i should plug in Hawhee’s work here…

  3. Doug Cloud permalink*
    October 19, 2012 4:54 pm

    I was definitely thinking about the team aspect as I was writing my entry. It reminded me of a comment Kathleen Hall Jamieson made when she spoke to our contemporary rhetorical theory course. She said that when she goes on TV they always ask her who “won” the debate and she really really hates that question, often refuses to give a direct answer, and then isn’t invited back.

    It’s all about the zingers, no?

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