Barack Obama Didn’t Win the Presidential Debates – And Neither Did John McCain





Mr. Zelinsky is the founder of the Presidential Debate Blog and blogs for the Huffington Post. He is a member of the Yale Law School Class of 2010.

The 2008 Presidential Election has passed from current events into recent history. From a broader historical perspective, the 2008 presidential debates had little impact on the two major party nominees. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain committed a slip-up on par with Gerald Ford's supposed gaffe that Poland was"independent." Neither scored the knockout blow of Ronald Reagan's now legendary put down of Jimmy Carter:"There you go again." Neither Sarah Palin nor Joe Biden came close to Lloyd Bentsen's famous"You're no Jack Kennedy" body-slam on Dan Quayle.

Yet, the 2008 presidential debates were historically unique in their impact on persons who were not the major party nominees. Although the debates changed neither McCain nor Obama's fortunes, there were still major winners in the 2008 debates.

Here are the awards for the top five finishes in the 2008 presidential debate cycle:

First Place: Joe Biden. During the 2008 campaign, Biden delivered the strongest primary debate performance of any candidate. In a line worthy of The Gipper himself, Biden skewered a question about his verbosity, answering with a simple, resounding"yes." This moment carries the possibility of future immortality. Biden also won great acclaim for declaring that Giuliani's sentences consist of"a noun, a verb, and 9-11." At the same time, Biden came off as a knowledgeable elder statesman, paving the way for his Vice Presidential selection. If not for the primary debates, Biden would likely not be Barack Obama's Vice President.

Second Place: Mike Huckabee. The silver-tongued former Arkansas governor gathered steam during the early Republican primary debates, leading to the"Huckaboom" when he swept the Iowa primary. Huckabee's folksy demeanor and easy delivery sold well with voters who got to know him in a series of oratorical contests where he bested Mitt Romney and John McCain. The debates surely were not everything: Chuck Norris delivered an Oprah-like punch for the former Razorback governor. However, Huckabee's rhetorical debate skill established him as a formidable player in the Republican Party in 2008 and beyond.

Third Place: Rick Warren. Warren did the best job of any debate moderator. Although his Saddleback Civil Forum was not a formal debate, Warren managed to steal the show, getting both candidates together (albeit not on stage simultaneously) to answer questions for the first time in the election cycle. Moreover, the Saddleback event cemented Warren's status as America's pastor, allowing him to step beyond the conventional Republican affiliation of other evangelicals. No American religious figure since Billy Graham has so adeptly straddled the partisan divide. Obama's choice of Warren for the inaugural prayer reflects Reverend Rick's continuing role in American politics. Like Huckabee, there is a good chance we'll be seeing more of Rick Warren in the future.

Fourth Place: Sarah Palin. It's tough to remember how on-the-ropes Palin was after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric. The October 2nd Vice Presidential Debate gave Palin the chance to redeem herself, and she did. In the words of Queen Latifah on Saturday Night Live, Palin entered the vice-presidential debate with"historically low expectations." Palin did not knock Biden out. In fact, most debate polls showed Biden pulling ahead. But Palin's debate performance effectively staunched the bleeding from the wounds caused by the Couric interviews. Her decent debate performance strengthened her claim as a national public figure both in the 2008 campaign and for the future.

Fifth Place: Joe the Plumber. Samuel J. Wurzelbacher awoke on the morning of Wednesday, October 15th a mere mortal. By nightfall, he was an international celebrity. Since then, Wurzelbacher has become an author, reporter, and potential candidate for Congress. Joe the Plumber was the"Lockbox" of the 2008 debate season, the line everyone will remember long after the specifics have faded into the distant memory.

The 2008 debate season may be over, but the impacts of the debates will be felt far into the future. Victory, they say, has a thousand fathers (and mothers). However, Biden, Huckabee, Palin, Warren, and Joe the Plumber all owe a special moment of thanks to the 2008 presidential debates


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Donald Wolberg - 2/17/2009

So it is for beauty and I suspect for perception of alleged debates. Unfortunately, to Dr. Frankenstein, the monster on the table was of wonderous beauty, an evaluation we may find lacking. So it is with selecting Mr. Biden as a superior debater. One suspects Mr. Biden more akin to a Frankenstein political creation than a person of knowledge (or for that matter intellect). I do not believe this evaluation too harsh. Mr. Biden is most noteable for gaff, ignorance and a general bluster of a Bilbo than a thoughtful politician.

I do agree that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. McCain did very well presenting who they were but for different reasons. Mr. Obama was usually at the short end of accomplishment in any of the multi-candidate debates. He seemed to be a remarkably unaccomplished Chicago politician, with less than glorious associations, and always appeared befuddled by any issues requiring content. Mr. McCain did present himself as he is, and despite the fact of his heroism, despite the independent streak of a many year career in politics, he was totally unexciting and just seemed worn.

In all, except for the lack of intellect, stilted and narrow as it is, of Mr. Paul, or the sense of "ownership" of the candidacy of Ms Clinton, the musicality and humor of Mr. Huckabee was appealing. Unfortunately, he is just too entertaining and has a less than appealing sense of the complexity fo the world.

It may well be that America needs the unfortunate imtellectual vapidness of Mr. Obama, and the complete sense of his being overwhelmed by a job for which he is clearly not fit, in order to discover a suitable candidate "next time." One can only hope that the nation will be relatively unscathed by the muddle the domineering Ms Pelosi and the sad sack and inept quality of Mr. Reid, as the dictate the policies of the rudderless Mr. Obama. Surely quality candidates of the Democrat and Republican parties will emerge.


R.R. Hamilton - 2/15/2009

The author calls Biden his party's "knowledgeble elder statesman".

In the debate against Palin, Biden said (1) that Pakistan had missiles that could reach the Mediterranean, and 2) that France and the U.S. had driven Hezbollah out of Lebanon.

If Biden is what passes for "the knowledgeable elder statesman", we should just surrender now.


Arnold Shcherban - 2/15/2009

Only in the cerebraless minds of some
politically biased Americans...

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