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Rhetorical devices in presidential politics


This page collects examples of rhetorical techniques used by both candidates in the 2008 US Presidential campaign.

Here is the official transcript of the third presidential debate, and here is a list of fallacies.

Guilt by association

Obama ties McCain to Bush (6:45), saying “Senator McCain voted for 4 out of 5 of President Bush’s budgets”

McCain calls him on it (video 2, 0:15), famously saying “I am not President Bush.”

Obama parries (2:50), saying, “If I occasionally mistake you with President Bush…it is because you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush.”

Commentary: Both candidates employed guilt by association at other points in the campaign: the McCain campaign played up Obama’s association with former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and the outspoken Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the less-than-ethical group ACORN. The Obama campaign produced a video that played up McCain’s association with savings and loan shark Charles Keating.

One could argue that some forms of guilt by association are valid while others are not. So was Obama’s associating McCain with Bush valid? Possibly yes, possibly no. If McCain voted with Bush 90% of the time because he believed that the policies were the best course, then it is indicative of the types of policies he may enact. If McCain voted instead for more political purposes, there is reason to believe that his policies would be different from Bush.

Poisoning the Well

(a satirical example by McCain, which he sets up Obama’s coming speech as the “final test of this campaign,” 1:10, so that anything Obama says is a letdown)

Red Herring

Below is a complex example in which Obama brings up McCain’s attacks but then says he doesn’t want to focus on attacks. It’s basically like saying “I don’t want you to think about elephants. Don’t think about elephants.” That forces us getting to think about elephants while disavowing motives.

“Well, New Hampshire, last night we had a debate. I think you saw a bit of the McCain attack strategy in action. But here’s what Senator McCain doesn’t seem to understand. With the economy in turmoil and the American Dream at risk, the American people don’t want to hear politicians attack each other - you want to hear about how we’re going to attack the challenges facing middle class families each and every day. You want to hear about the issues that matter in your lives. You want to hear about how we’re going to bring about the change that we desperately need for our country. That’s what the American people want to hear.” (whole speech here)