Senator Barack Obama won the second presidential debate of the 2008 US election.

Obama was stronger than Senator John McCain over a wide range of issues. On the economy, McCain did not effectively defend his $200b tax cut for wealthier individuals and businesses. This allowed Obama to focus on the middle class and look responsible for having $200b of expenditure to cut. McCain instead promised a spending freeze that was undermined by exceptions and inconsistent with other spending promises.

Obama was strong on health with a national coverage program. McCain had a tax credit to talk about which Obama challenged effectively. McCain’s anti-government rhetoric in this part of the debate seemed at odds with his quest for greater government oversight of economic and financial matters.

The environment question was decisively won by Obama. His optimistic “opportunity” response covering alternative as well as traditional energy made McCain look limited as he focused mostly on drilling (despite the large gap between US oil reserves and consumption that Obama pointed out). A ruffled McCain could only refer to Obama as “that one” in follow up questioning.

Foreign policy was a closer contest, but Obama did better on the issue of Pakistan. McCain criticised Obama’s imprudence for saying he would go after bin Laden even if located in Pakistan, declaring that instead he would walk softly but carry a big stick. The point was significant because it went to the heart of McCain’s charge that Obama lacks by comparison experience (and wisdom).

Obama attacked his opponent in rebuttal by reminding the audience that McCain wanted to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”, “annihilate Korea” and proclaimed “next stop, Baghdad”. McCain responded feebly.

Issues such as American peacekeeping, Israel and Iraq and Afghanistan were about even in the debate. Both speakers were able to disagree without anyone winning the issues. McCain was clearer than a tentative Obama on Russia, and clever in his response to the “yes/no” question “is Russia the evil empire?” McCain explained why and yes/no answer would be unwise in the circumstances.

The speakers failed a basic relevance test on a few occasions, ignoring questions from time to time for their own purposes, without challenge from the moderator. This reflected the lack of rebuttal opportunity (which meant that speakers used the following question to address past issues or correct misrepresentations).

It was a good debate in terms of manner. Both speakers spoke well, engaging well with the questioner, moderator and the audience. McCain did get seem to get irritated from time to time and “that one” remark detracted from his manner. Obama stayed clear and calm and his responses were well structured.

Both speakers closed strongly: Obama invoking the American Dream while McCain invoked his American duty. This neatly summarised the debate: Obama argued more on policy (multi-level responses and detail) while McCain focused on personality (no “on the job training”, “I know how to do that”, “I know how to catch bin Laden” etc). It had the effect of making Obama look like he had more ideas on issues such as the economy, environment and health. It was a good win for Obama.

Ray D’Cruz is author of the World Parliamentary Debate Rules and provides election debate analysis alongside other debate experts here.

Peter Fray

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