The final debate had the best format of the three presidential debates. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, and the journalist, Bob Schieffer, were seated in close proximity to one another. This produced an intimate, personalized setting for spontaneous interchanges on the issues. Schieffer did an excellent job of encouraging a direct clash debate between the candidates on important issues and provided the audience with a clear view of the temperament and debate dexterity of the two candidates. As Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist of the 1960s, might say: “Sen. Obama was ‘cool’ while Sen. McCain was ‘hot’ in the television medium that demands coolness.”
McCain had his best debate, but it was probably not enough to change the direction of the campaign. McCain clearly distanced himself from the Bush administration when he stated that Obama was not running against Geroge Bush — and if he wanted to, he should have run four years ago. The personal anecdote in Gov. Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential debate was a mythical “Joe Six-Pack.” For McCain, it was “Joe, the Plumber” who would be hurt by Obama’s tax proposal. It is doubtful that this dramatization of working Americans was helpful, and, in fact, could seem like it was pandering to the average blue-collar American.
The clearest contrast between the two presidential candidates occurred over the Roe v Wade issue. McCain articulated the “pro-life” position and Obama defended the “pro-choice” position. Both candidates sought to find areas where they might have common ground, but their fundamental differences were quite clear.
McCain summarized his position by asking voters to trust his character and past behavior as a public servant and pointed out that he was the third generation of McCains who had spent their careers in the service of their country. McCain portrayed himself as a fighter, but is that the temperament that most voters are looking for in their next president? McCain identified himself as a change agent, but did he sufficiently free himself from the eight years of the Bush administration? These important questions will be settled in the voting booth.
It was important for Obama to continue his focus on policies, not personalities, and to present a presidential temperament that voters could trust. Obama remained unflappable in the presence of direct attacks by McCain. He focused his remarks on his economic, health, energy, and education plans. He did not present any new arguments but continued to explain his policies that he set forth in the first debate.
The debate was almost entirely devoted to economic issues, which was to Obama’s advantage. Personal attacks were a minor distraction and foreign policy questions were not discussed at all. There were probably only a few voters who changed their minds as a result of this debate.
Do we need another debate to help voters decide? Definitely not. This debate will provide little campaign material for the final days of the campaign.
John F. Cragan teaches communication theory, small-group communication and public speaking at the University of St. Thomas.