How do you interrupt your debate opponent, contradict everything he says, strike a pose of amused disbelief while he rants on about your rotten leadership, and hit him with zingers that the pundits are still applauding the next morning, all without coming off as rude? And, in President Obama's case, how do you do all this while still looking presidential?
That's the challenge for both contenders in Tuesday night's second presidential debate, one that Obama, in particular, is widely acknowledged to have failed to meet in his first contest against GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Oct. 3. This time around, Obama is holding a three-day retreat in Williamsburg, Va., to brush up on his technique. "This isn't a guy who needs to be grilled on facts," an Obama aide told the New York Times. "What he needs to work on is stylistic."
Obama is reported to have admired the way Vice President Joe Biden went on the offensive in his debate against Rep. Paul Ryan. Conservatives do not agree. After the vice presidential debate, right-wing commentators were buzzing about Biden's "rude," "condescending" style. Joe Pounder, research director of the Republican National Committee, even rejected his party's normal disdain for mathematics to pounce on Biden's disrespectful behavior: "Final Count: Biden interrupted 82 times during the entire debate," he tweeted. Some liberals and independents too were turned off by Biden's smirking and laughter during Paul's turn to speak. Of course, that sort of thing goes both ways. After the first presidential debate, Democrats said Romney came off as rude for talking over the moderator and interrupting Obama, yet he is widely acknowledged to have won the contest.
Where does acceptable rudeness become unpardonable nastiness? Many thought John McCain crossed that line in a debate with Obama in 2008 during a discussion of energy policy. "There was an energy bill in the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies. It was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know -- that one." By "that one," of course, he meant Obama, describing the junior senator from Illinois as if he were a naughty child. Although some suspected the aging McCain had just momentarily forgotten his opponent's name, most agreed that this was a mark of disrespect that went too far. Better, maybe, to refer to your opponent as "my friend," as Biden did last week, while smilingly accusing him of being a lying sack of shinola.
Of course, what a candidate says sometimes matters less than body language. The famously inarticulate George W. Bush didn't just stammer over his answers in the first presidential debate of 2004, he looked by turns flabbergasted, disgusted and constipated when Sen. John Kerry was speaking, adding to the perception that Kerry wiped the floor with him. Obama, who mostly scowled or took notes during Romney's speaking time last week, would have done well to study the tapes of Bush before the debate. This time around, I expect the Obama camp to take away his notepad.
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