October 01, 2004

A man who doesn't know how to sell a contradiction

I was out at church last night while the first presidential debate of the campaign was on, so I didn't get to watch it. Fortunately, that's why God created VCRs. Now that I've had a chance to review the debate, here are my thoughts. As a classical rhetorician, I tend to look at debates in terms of Aristotle's three appeals: logo, ethos, and pathos.

First, a few words about the debate structure: Total length: 90 minutes; the umbrella topic, national security on the foreign and domestic front. There were no opening statements. When a question was asked by the moderator, the respondee had a two-minute response, followed by a 90-second rebuttal, and a one-minute extended discussion at the discretion of the moderator (which was used more often than not). Closing statements were 2 minutes.

With no individual element of the debate over 2 minutes long, this format was conducive to sound bites, but not to a serious thrashing out of the issues. I am not a big fan of these novel debate formats that have been used in recent elections. Why not go with a more traditional opening statement/rebuttal/cross-examination/closing statement format, which could easily be fit into a two-hour time slot?

Logos is the content and logical structure of the argument. What is said, and how is it said?

Senator Kerry said that the war in Iraq is the wrong priority. It was not Saddam Hussein that attacked America on 9/11. The alliance of nations fighting terror in Iraq is not the kind of coalition he would build: "We are 90% of the casualties and 90% of the cost." Diplomacy, not force, is the preferred means of resolving conflict, not force. Although the president has the right to make a pre-emptive strike, and he would not cede that right, Kerry said that it was necessary to make sure such action was taken for the right reasons and in a way that passes the "global test." The single most significant threat to the United States is nuclear proliferation. On the domestic front, Kerry would protect America first; "not one nickel" has been spent making tunnels, subways, bridges, etc.; while police are being trained in Iraq, there is no money being spent here at home.

President Bush said that the U.S. has the resources to fight the war on terror on multiple fronts (specifically both Iraq and Afghanistan). Of course diplomacy is to be preferred to force - "we tried diplomacy, we did our best" - and hopefully will make force less necessary in the future. It is possible to resolve conflict with North Korea and Iran over nuclear weapons with diplomacy: not engaging in dialogue, but bringing international pressure to bear on them. On the domestic front, the Bush administration has tripled spending on homeland security and created the Department of Homeland Security. Borders have been "modernized." The best way to protect the homeland is to go on the offensive against its enemies.

Logical advantage: Bush. While both debaters spoke clearly and concisely, he stayed on message. His repetition of Kerry's words, "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" drove home his point about Kerry's inconsistency on the war in Iraq. Kerry had some trouble staying on-topic, at one point even using part of his time on one question to continue his rebuttal from the previous question.

Hugh Hewitt has posted a (highly partisan) detailed summary of the questions and responses.

Ethos is an appeal to the character and reputation of the speaker. Does the audience perceive him as an authority? Does he project confidence? Is his body language consistent with his message?

Kerry's tempo was faster, and he hesitated less. His tone of voice, remaining evenly baritone throughout, communicated calmness and authority. He was prepared to confront questions about his supposed inconsistencies. Realizing his own military service has been a major Achilles' heel to his campaign thus far, he wisely stayed away from it except for a few brief mentions. In a few places, Kerry looked decidedly smug when reacting to something Bush had said.

Bush's weakness at extemporizing, particularly his malapropisms, is well known, and it showed here. (Though I only noticed one really bad verbal fumble during the whole debate, and that was actually Kerry's "mexed missages.") Bush spoke more slowly, stammered frequently, and made a few pauses that were uncomfortably long. Referring to al-Qaeda as a "group of folks" was just unfortunate (as Jon Stewart pointed out, "'a group of folks' is what you run into at the Olive Garden"). Bush has a tendency to hunch over and hug the podium when he speaks, in contrast to the more relaxed Kerry, and his trademark smirk was a lot more obvious than his opponent's poker face. In contrast with Kerry, Bush's voice changed pitch frequently from low to high, and there were times where it sounded like he was straining his vocal chords. On the other hand, when given a really loaded question by John Lehrer, about his opponent's character, he handled it with graciousness. (Kerry's response showed equal grace. This was a friendly debate.)

Ethical advantage: Kerry. In contrast with the popular appeal of President Bush, the senator from Massachusetts entered this debate as the underdog, perceived as inconsistent, out of touch with the man on the street, and unnecessarily verbose. For the most part, he was concise and direct and clearly more comfortable than Bush.

Pathos, considered the weakest of the three appeals, is the emotional content of the argument.

Kerry made numerous emotional appeals to the condition of troops in Iraq, most notably their lack of armoured HumVees and body armour (which parents had to buy online for them and ship overseas), and accused the President of not doing enough to protect them or Americans at home. His personal anecdotes included an encounter with some soldiers returning from Iraq, who asked him to "help them."

Bush emphasized that great American buzzword, freedom. "The Iraqis want to be free"; "a free Iraq will be a powerful ally in the war on terror." His most notable anecdote was about a meeting between himself and the widow of a soldier killed in Iraq, and the nobility of his sacrifice.

Pathetic advantage: Bush. Kerry tried to play on the audience's fears, but Bush made appeals to transcendent values such as freedom and American confidence.

Overall advantage: Bush. Barely. With Kerry's credibility sagging, he had to prove he was still in this race, and he accomplished that with a strong and confident presentation that kept Bush largely on the defensive. On the other hand, what exactly he would do about the war on terror is still enigmatic, and his statement that he would subject American military action to a "global test" was a major tactical blunder. As Bush pointed out repeatedly, multiple diplomatic efforts were already tried in the UN, to no effect, and the United States does not need permission from the international community to act.

God willing, I'll be back for next week's vice-presidential debate and second presidential debate next Friday.