10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Smart Talkers Lose Debates and How Obama Can Beat McCain Anyway

Democrats like Barack Obama have historically lost presidential debates because they made two fundamental mistakes: First, they have treated the debates as if they were high school or college debates, which are won primarily on the merits of the arguments and volume of evidence presented.

Second, relatedly, they seem to think that appearing smarter than your opponent is a winning strategy, whereas Republicans understand and have repeatedly demonstrated it is a losing strategy. This fact was very well understood by the masters of persuasive language from ancient Greece and Rome through Elizabethans like Shakespeare and by skilled debaters like Lincoln and Churchill, as we will see.

Debates are typically won by the candidate who presents the most compelling and persuasive character. If I can convince you I'm an honest, straight talker, you'll believe what else I say. If you can't, you won't.

Debates are not usually won on factual or policy merits, in part because voters aren't in a position to adjudicate sometimes subtle differences between complex programs -- what exactly was the difference between Clinton's health care plan and Obama's? -- and because the late deciding independent voters are, perhaps wisely, skeptical that politicians are going to be able to deliver on their promises anyway. In any case, if I don't convince you I'm honest, my stated policy positions can't possibly matter.

Debates are also won by whichever side is best able to portray their opponent's performance as matching or vindicating the negative narrative they have been working so hard to push on the public and the media. Needless to say, if you don't have such a counterpunching narrative with which to define your opponent, you have no chance of winning the debate and the best you can hope for is to draw.

The bad news for Obama is that he has fallen [run willingly?] into the standard trap of appearing to be an over-educated smart talker. But the good news is that the supposed straight-talker John McCain has begun to be treated in the media (and by the Obama campaign) as the serial liar he has become -- and at the same time, he is clearly one of the worst candidates at maintaining message discipline while speaking off-the-cuff in modern GOP history. At least in one respect, John McCain is no George Bush.

Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was discovered and developed by the Greeks and Romans in part to help them win debates, to help them appear honest and genuine, so it follows that modern debates are also won by those who are better at using the strategies and tactics of rhetoric.

The great task for Obama in the debates -- the task for anyone who wants to win a nationally televised debate -- is to master rhetoric without appearing to be a master rhetorician. Since Democrats from Jimmy Carter to Mike Dukakis to Al Gore and John Kerry -- and their strategists, message makers, and debate coaches -- seem painfully unaware of what Republicans (and Bill Clinton) have long understood, I will focus on the rhetoric of debate in a series of posts.

The rest of this post will explain why (those who appear to be) straight talkers beat smart talkers every time, ending with a discussion of the 2004 election. Part 2 will focus on how the Bush team in 2000 used the first debate to finish framing Gore with the negative extended metaphor they had crafted for him. Part 3 will offer some specific tactics and strategies for Obama.


A core strategy of rhetoric is to avoid seeming like a smarty-pants, to avoid appearing like Carter Dukakis Gore Kerry a highly educated (i.e. elite), wonkish speaker, but rather a plainspoken man of the people.

Shakespeare -- a master of rhetoric who knew more than 200 figures of speech like all middle-class Elizabethans (why do you think they called it grammar school?) -- understood that very well. That's why he has Mark Antony say in one of the great debate speeches of all time, his famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" response to Brutus in the Roman Forum: "I am no orator, as Brutus is, But -- as you know me all -- a plain blunt man."

Is it coincidental that the only ones to use the word "rhetoric" in the 2004 presidential debates were George Bush and Dick Cheney? In the Vice Presidential Debate, Cheney said to his Democratic rival, Senator John Edwards, "Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up." In the final debate, Bush twice repeated almost verbatim the same accusation about Kerry: "His rhetoric doesn't match his record," and again "His record in the United States Senate does not match his rhetoric." This was only a small salvo in the Bush team's war on Kerry's language.

It is a mark of wily orators that they accuse their opponents of being rhetoricians. Winston Churchill, who wrote a treatise on the use of rhetoric in political speech at the age of 22, himself once opened an attack on his political opponents, saying "These professional intellectuals who revel in decimals and polysyllables...."

Returning to the Roman Forum, Marc Antony says

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men's blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

So Antony is a man of the people, just reminding them of what they already know. Antony was, in fact, a patrician, like Bush. Indeed, Antony was a student of rhetoric, but his repeated use of one-syllable words lends credibility to his blunt sincerity. It is a mark of first-rate orators that they deny eloquence

Lincoln was a "plain homespun" speaker, or so goes the legend, a legend he himself worked hard to create. In a December 1859 autobiographical sketch provided to a Pennsylvania newspaper, Lincoln explained how his father grew up "literally without education." Lincoln described growing up in "a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods.... There were some schools, so called." He offers one especially colorful spin: "If a stranger supposed to understand Latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard." No fancy talkers here. Lincoln modestly explains the result of the little schooling he had: "Of course when I came of age, I did not know much." And after that, "I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity." All this from a man who in the previous year had proven himself to be one of America's great orators in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and who during the course of his presidency would demonstrate the most sophisticated grasp of rhetoric of any U.S. President, before or since.

Lincoln opened his masterful February 1859 Cooper Union speech echoing Shakespeare's Antony: "The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them." (In Antony's own words, "I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know.") These are the words of a man who had memorized Shakespeare from William Scott's Lessons in Elocution, a treatise that included Antony's famous speech.

The master orator who denies eloquence and rhetoric was such a commonplace by the sixteenth century that Shakespeare resorted to it repeatedly. Consider his King Henry V, a master of oratory, who delivered the most famous pre-battle speech in the English-language:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother...

After the British triumph at Agincourt, King Henry V woos Katherine, the daughter of the French king. Yet, even though Kate's hand was one of Henry's conditions for peace, the master of rhetoric still treats us to his tricks.

When Kate says she doesn't speak English well, Henry says he's glad, "for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown." He's just like a farmer, a man of the people. He adds, "But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths, which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging." Like Antony, he disingenuously denies eloquence. The reason orators use this trick: Being blunt and ineloquent means they must be honest and steadfast.
Here is Bush in his Orlando campaign speech on October 30, 2004:

Sometimes I'm a little too blunt-I get that from my mother. [Huge Cheers] Sometimes I mangle the English language-I get that from my dad. [Laughter and Cheers]. But you always know where I stand. You can't say that for my opponent....

For a blunt language-mangler, that's surprisingly old-school -- very old school -- rhetoric.

Henry urges Kate to "take a fellow of plain and uncoin'd constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places." Because he is not a clever orator, he must be an honest and constant man. Then Henry compares himself to an imaginary rival: "For these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favours, they do always reason themselves out again." In short, the other guys are flip-floppers and liars. They talk smarter than I do, but that's exactly why you can't trust them.

Consider Bush's stump speech in Wilmington, Ohio the day before the election, discussing his September 2003 request for $87 billion in Iraq war funding and Kerry's vote: "And then he entered the flip-flop Hall of Fame by saying this: 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it.' I haven't spent a lot of time in the coffee shops around here, but I bet you a lot of people don't talk that way." In Burgettstown, two hours later he said, "I doubt many people in western Pennsylvania talk that way." In Sioux City, Iowa, a few hours later, "I haven't spent much time in the coffee shops around here, but I feel pretty comfortable in predicting that not many people talk like that in Sioux land." And in Albuquerque, he said, "I have spent a lot of time in New Mexico, and I've never heard a person talk that way."

Sarah Palin, in her stump speech, makes an almost identical criticism of Obama: "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco." He is not one of us. He's two faced. Yes, it may seem laughable coming from the Palin-McCain team, but even laughable works when it uses the tools of rhetoric -- Palin here is using antithesis -- placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition, one of Lincoln's favorite rhetorical devices: "with malice toward none; with charity for all." And she is placing Obama into a very old narrative about liars, flip-floppers, and Democratic candidates for President.

Kerry's self-defining and self-defaming quote--"I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it."--has the powerful elements of eloquence. Sadly for Kerry, this is the precise reason it stuck in the mind. It has the repetition and sound of two memorable figures found in famous political quotes, antithesis, ("voted for" versus "voted against"), and chiasmus, words repeated in inverse order (in this case, "I .. vote for" and "before I voted"). Little wonder it was ripe for exploitation through repetition and sarcasm.

Why did Kerry flip flop? Bush had a simple answer. The President told every audience that Kerry's most revealing explanation "was when he said, the whole thing was a complicated matter. My fellow Americans, there is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat." Rhetoric retains the power to move real people. In a 2005 post-election analysis, Journalism professor Danner quotes one Dr. Richardson-Pinto saying to him at Bush's Orlando rally: "It doesn't matter if the man [Kerry] can talk. Sometimes, when someone's real articulate, you can't trust what he says, you know?" And Richardson-Pinto is a doctor, someone whose credibility depends on being articulate.

The President has everything down cold that we expect from a master rhetorician: The repeated simple words, the repeated phrases, and the message that his opponent is inconsistent and inconstant because he's too clever by half and doesn't talk the way you and I do. Yet at the same time, Bush manages to leave the impression that he himself is rather slow and inarticulate. Ironically, the (all-too-many) Democrats who attacked Bush as being stupid merely gave him a free pass on all his lying and made him seem more genuine and credible to many voters

This stuff works. To paraphrase the slogan from the last Democrat to win the presidency, "It's the rhetoric, stupid." And speaking of that famous slogan, it was not merely a vow to focus laser-like on the economy, but a message to the public that Clinton the candidate was definitely not one of those too-smart fellows of infinite tongue.
Indeed, Clinton had said in the speech announcing his candidacy for President on October 3, 1991 in Little Rock, Arkansas that "We need more than photo ops and empty rhetoric." In words that would make rhetorician proud, he vowed: "This must be a campaign of ideas, not slogans... I'm going to tell you in plain language what I intend to do as President." This was a dig at his opponent, George H. W. Bush, a patrician politician who was not known for his command of the English language but who had not figured out how to turn that to his advantage, as his son has. Still, like most successful politicians, Clinton was a master of slogans, including "It's the economy's stupid" and "mend it don't end it" and "don't ask, don't tell."

So far, Obama hasn't come close to figuring out how to sound like a man of the people. The only good news for him is that McCain's "straight talk express" has completely derailed, and the Arizonan has been exposed as a serial liar. I will address the consequences of that for both candidates in Part 2.