Assessing Walker and Barrett as Debaters

Among the Democrats who might challenge Gov. Walker is one who challenged him in 2010. Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett ran and lost in a 1,128,941 to 1,004,303 tally.

Barrett may run against Walker in a recall, so here’s an assessment of Barrett and Walker as debaters in the 2010 campaign. There’s more to write, another time, about Barrett’s chances in a Democratic primary (very good, despite Kathleen Falk’s many union endorsements) and his chances in a rematch against Walker (as good or better than any other Democrat).

This debate took place on 10.15.2010 at Marquette Law School’s Eckstein Hall.

Manner. Both seem confident, but Barrett more so. Milwaukee’s mayor is more relaxed, and more conversational.

Delivery. Barrett speaks easily and smoothly, but he would do better if he were to emphasize key points with changes in tone. A sharper tone, a greater intensity, would benefit to him.

Walker needs to speak more slowly than he does here, with a bit less intensity. Candidate Walker’s approach was useful (to convey urgency), but Wisconsin’s on a knife-edge in 2012. It’s not incumbent Gov. Walker, but a recall challenger, who needs to convey a sense of urgency now.

Clash. Clash in a debate is a good thing. It doesn’t mean incivility; it simply means that the debaters respond directly to each other’s contentions. A debate without clash is one where the debaters talk past each other, each with his or her own topics, often little more than platitudes.

There is productive clash in this debate, throughout. With a difference, however: Walker begins answers with a single-sentence summary, and then elaborates. It’s effective. Barrett, by contrast, often takes two or three sentences to make his initial point. That’s too long. Walker’s like someone who was taught to begin every paragraph with a topic sentence. It’s a useful technique.

There’s a ‘things to come’ moment in this debate, too. Listen to candidate Walker at 11:39 in the video, and you’ll hear him hit public employees as the source of Milwaukee County’s fiscal problems. Walker never proposes — and never proposed during the campaign — changes in Wisconsin’s collective bargaining rights for public employees. But he does call public employees the ‘haves’ in contrast to others, the ‘have-nots.’ Barrett responds tepidly, in an unfocused way, to Walker’s firm and direct assessment.

The election result would have been the same despite a different answer from Barrett, but neither one of these men would have a margin for a lukewarm reply now.

Attire. No one should go into a debate thinking about how to dress; attire should be a matter of instinct. No matter how much people insist on substance, some appearances matter greatly to people, however. They’ll forgive natural appearance in a way they won’t forgive sloppiness, signs of exhaustion, or nervousness.

Both these men are dressed similarly, although Walker wears a darker suit, of a color that conveys intensity. Neither one wears his two-button coat as well as Mike Gousha wears a three-button one. (Admittedly, a three-button one fits more closely.) Walker’s coat collar rides above his shirt collar, and Barrett’s coat is bunched near his shoulders. A two-button coat is still the standard for men in politics, but it’s sometimes hard to wear one at a seated at table.

The coat should rest on the shirt collar. These gentlemen shouldn’t have to worry about that; a campaign should have someone to look after this sort of thing.

I’ve never thought much of flags on lapels, but they have become a required accessory for both major parties. There’s a message in these candidates’ choices: Walker wears a flag, Barrett a ribbon that has the flag’s stars and stripes. Walker’s is the more traditional; Barrett’s the more specific (in support of soldiers aboard).

Both are fine, and it was sensible of Barrett to wear a version. (Some voters find the lapel flags reassuring. Barrett likely reassured some disinclined to him, and meaningfully unsettled no one inclined to him, by wearing one.)

There’s been so much talk about the half-hearted campaign Barrett ran in 2010. I’ve shared that view. Watching the debate again with fresh eyes, now, I find that Barrett does well, but needs an increase in intensity. If he summons that, he’d do well in a rematch.

Walker, in this 2010 debate, is the same as his political persona since: single-minded, succinct, one-speed, ahead. There’s room for change, but he’ll easily satisfy is supporters, should there ever be debates during a recall election.

The real question here, for Democrats: Do you really think union-endorsed Kathleen Falk would do better than Barrett in this environment? I’d say you’re greatly mistaken if you do. Barrett (or Kathleen Vinehout) would convey greater energy and enthusiasm than Falk.

Democrats may think the world of Falk (and some do), but a campaign’s neither a gold watch nor a certificate of appreciation.

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