, , ,

This debate was televised; it’ll be repeated tomorrow at noon on NPR (I think) and most Missouri newspapers will touch on the high points. Consequently, I’m not going to get bogged down (much) in a critique of the substance in these quick notes, but rather offer my impressions of how each candidate performed in terms of  rhetorical effectiveness. Forewith:


  • I learned that he’s the father of two little “guys” – it was, in fact, pounded into my brain via incessant repetition. Hawley seems to have no other go-to when trying to describe motivation.


  • He lost on substance:
    • He’s obviously spent a lot of time memorizing campaign slogans and GOP talking points.
    • He’s wasn’t ashamed to repeat said slogans and talking points over and over; it’s was insulting to the intelligence of his auditors.
    • He’s wasn’t willing to get lost in the weeds of facts and figures; those he did summon were often incorrect or misleading
    • Since his answers consisted of lots of canned campaign hash, he had lots of time to leave the podium and show his interlocutors (and the TV audience) just what a nice, personable young man he really is.
    • He was perfectly happy to twist facts and mislead his listeners. For example, in answer to a question about whether or not he would support cutting Social Security and Medicare in order to address the Trump deficit, he answered that he would not support cutting these programs for current recipients or those who would receive benefits in the near future – a standard GOP dodge to avoid scaring current pensioners when they propose to privatize or whittle the programs away. He consistently misrepresented the impact of the ACA on insurance prices by failing to note that the growth in premiums is a response to efforts by the GOP congress and the Trump administration to sabotage the program.
    • He continued to repeat specific misleading points even after his facts had been corrected, e.g., he insisted a second time – even after McCaskill corrected his earlier statement – that she supported the “Waters of the U.S.” rule. In fact, McCaskill actually joined Republicans to vote to scrap the rule in its then form.
    • He seemed awfully studied and slick and determined to do the full George W. Bush – repeat dumb talking points over and over.
    • He was consistently on the attack – understandable since he doesn’t have a record of achievement to which he could refer.


  • Hawley won on style:
    • He spent lots of time repeating campaign slogans. It may seem insulting to careful listeners, but rhetoricians tell us that to effectively persuade large numbers of people, we need to keep the message simple and repeat it over and over. Hawley’s got that routine down and he probably went over well with lots of viewers.
    • He’s not willing to get lost in the weeds of policy talk. We’re told that complicated, fact-filled arguments go right through both ears for many listeners, so this was probably a positive for Hawley who delivered answers that were simplistic often to the point of dishonesty – but with an air of authoritative conviction.
    • Since his answers consisted of lots of canned campaign hash, he had lots of time to leave the podium and show his interlocutors (and the TV audience) just what a nice, personable young man he really is.
    • He was calm, collected and cool as ice. If McCaskill got under his skin, he didn’t let anyone know except when he decided that a little high (or medium-high) dudgeon could be exploited for rhetorical effect.

Claire McCaskill:

  • She’ll soon be a grandmother for the 12th time – and, no, she only let that fact drop once – there was no serious effort to curry favor via grandchildren. Thank God. I don’t need my politicians “humanized,” just competent.


  • She won on substance:
    • She had her facts down – and almost everything she says can be verified.
    • She devoted more time to describing her positions than describing her opponents shortcomings. This approach was notable in the concluding statements; Hawley spent used the statement to continue condescending to McCskill who is, he implied, past her use-by date – to paraphrase, a good enough person whose desiccated liberalism doesn’t resonate wth today’s Missourians.
    • She could concentrate on her achievements because she has a real of record of hard work and experience that informed her answers.
    • She didn’t condescend to her audience. She seemed to assume that they could deal with what goes into making policy and don’t have to be fed responses cribbed from TV ads.
    • She made it clear that she tries to represent all Missourians, not just a particular tribe, even if it means that she makes all Missourians angry at one time or another (not all at the same time, though).


  • She lost on style
    • She had all her facts down, lots of them – and tried to cram them all into short answers which can have the effect of making them seem less coherent or convincing. Also lots of people, we’re told, just don’t listen to or remember complex, detailed responses. (Although I personally was delighted with her command of facts and nuance – that, after all, is where the “truth” lies.)
    • She seemed to become agitated and uncomfortable much of the time which undercut her effectiveness
    • She seemed overeager at times which contrasted with Hawley’s relaxed demeanor.
    • Even though she clearly wanted to emphasize her centrism, she could have done so and still defended many of her past positions more forcefully, with less meandering explanation. There’s no need for her to be apologetic.
    • She can be good at being forceful and letting her tough side show – I’ve seen her do it. I wish she’d done it more tonight.


Tonight’s debate seemed like an exercise which was intended to show whether substance dominates style or vice versa,  the outcome of which we probably won’t know until November 6. You have also probably also noticed – particularly in regard to Hawley – that many of the “pros” are also “cons.” That’s because it’s all a matter of perspective.

* Slightly revised for style an clarity (11:43 pm, 10/18/2018).