Skip to main content

Grant Barrett On The Presidential Debate And Debaters


Grant Barrett, co-host, public radio's "A Way With Words"


Weeks of preparation have gone into the first presidential debate this Wednesday. Each side has used surrogates -- some of them very well-known -- to stand-in for the opponent. Thick briefing books have been pored over. Every topic possible has been raised for the candidates to swat down.

Will any of it make a difference?

Grant Barrett, co-host of public radio's "A Way With Words" (Saturdays at 4 p.m. on KPBS), believes that both Republicans and Democrats can frame messages in terms that resonate with their core constituency. Others feel that Republicans may be more adept at controlling the terms of political discussions.

Both parties use "dog-whistle words," says Barrett, terms which elicit a visceral response because the audience knows the precise meaning of the speaker. "Family values," "liberty," "fairness," "fair share," "death panels," perhaps even the term "middle class" are all dog-whistle words. Political advertising also makes liberal use of terms like these.

Barrett expects President Barack Obama to be much more at home on the debate podium in Las Vegas than Governor Mitt Romney. Romney, he says, may end up behaving like a stand-up comedian. He has been collecting and practicing zingers -- lots of them, not just to get a laugh, but to try to bring up something Obama is not prepared to talk about and perhaps unnerve him.

The Obama camp has kept a cone of silence over the president's debate preparation.

In spite of the hundreds of staff hours and considerable expense of the debates, Barrett said he believes most of the audience will simply ignore the questions.

They've already made up their minds.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.