Given that I live in a particularly blue corner of one of the country's bluest states, a number of bewildered Democrats I know who are familiar with my Critical Voter project (a podcast and associated web site that uses the 2012 election to teach practical critical thinking skills) have asked if there might be a rhetorical explanation for the disappointing performance of President Obama during last week's debate.
Without disparaging the many insightful political analysis that have been offered up over the last week (except, perhaps, the one that attributed Obama's performance to altitude sickness), an understanding of rhetoric and argumentation might provide a better framework to both understand what went on during the first presidential debate, and what the candidates can do to prepare for the next two.
First, keep in mind that political oratory (or any other type of persuasive speech, which includes debate performances, interviews and even TV ads) is made up of a number of different components.
A skilled persuader must be able to make appeals to logic (logos) and emotion (pathos) while also trying to build a connection to his or her audience (ethos). These are Aristotle's Three Modes of Persuasion, and the best persuaders (political or otherwise) not only understand how to make all three appeals, but are able to blend them in the right combination in order to come off as thoughtful, caring and understanding (vs. wooly-headed, manipulative and pandering).
Strong arguments also take place in the right verb tense, with most successful political argumentation being deliberative (debating future options, and thus taking place in the future tense), vs. forensic (usually laying blame -- past tense) or demonstrative (celebrating or bemoaning the current state of things -- present tense).
Classical arguments also fall into a structure that was established centuries ago that we still instinctively look for (and become disappointed, or even hostile, when it is not used -- similar to how movies that don't follow a conventional formula often leave audiences bewildered). And most strong speakers make use of various rhetorical devices that both liven up their presentation and provide techniques for pushing their opponent into a corner (or getting out of a jam themselves).
Even the most skilled political persuaders (such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) never mastered each and every facet of argumentation, but were rather so highly skilled in some that it made up for shortcomings elsewhere. Bill Clinton probably comes the closest to a talented all-arounder (as demonstrated in his highly praised speech at this year's Democratic Convention). More typical was Ronald Reagan who was masterful at convincing audiences that he was on their side, an ethos appeal that made up for limitations he had in presenting complex logical arguments.
Barack Obama's skill set includes seemingly effortless inclusion of rhetorical devices that make his speeches "easy on the ear." Almost every paragraph of an Obama speech includes devices such as alliteration (the repetition of an initial consonant sound) and anaphora (the repletion of the same word in a list for effect, such as the extra "or's" in "no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what your last name is." Like Reagan, he is strong on ethos-based appeals (particularly in his opening remarks) and no one working in politics today is better at delivering an emotionally uplifting conclusion to his speeches (called the peroration).
Unfortunately for the president, the restricted format for the first debate neutralized almost every one of his advantages. Within the enforced, conversational, give-and-take of the debate's structure, crafted language (i.e., language that utilizes rhetorical devices) comes off as artificial and contrived, and debates don't provide the place for a sweeping emotional climax.
Rather, debates reward the ability to deliver logos-based arguments that include presentations of facts, clear statements of difference (called a division) and logical proofs that link one's facts to one's positions. And while Mitt Romney lacks Obama's strengths in other rhetorical areas, with regard to logos the candidates were evenly matched.
From this vantage point, it seemed as though Romney -- aware of his own limitations as an orator -- managed the restrictions of the debate structure to his advantage, delivering one high-speed logos-based argument after another, leveraging ethos sparingly (in the form of appeals to shared American values) and limiting pathos-based emotional appeals to just a couple of stock stories of "real people" met on the campaign trail begging him to win and enact his policies.
Obama, on contrast, seemed to think that his oratorical skill (that works best in speeches before large, enthusiastic audiences) would fit any situation (including a highly structured debate). In other words, he failed to take into account the admonition of the man who introduced his rival at the Republican Convention, namely that "a man's got to know his limitations."
While some pundits are urging the president to come out swinging during the next debate (much like his vice president did last night), such dramatic inconsistencies in behavior between debate performances can backfire (as they did with Al Gore in 2000). And if any member of one of the candidate's political prep team is reading this, advice on how to best leverage the tools of argumentation and persuasion (for both candidates) will be included in this Sunday's (non-partisan) Critical Voter podcast.