Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thoughts on the Third Presidential Debate

Well, the snap polls are going heavily to Obama. This is not surprising. As I've argued before, the only definition of who "won" that matters is, who garnered more undecideds by virtue of his performance? By this measure, once again, Obama succeeded in his primary objective, which was to seem "presidential." And once again, McCain failed to create doubts about Obama, while managing, through his sarcasm, visible anger and disgust, and overall lack of graciousness, to look distinctly unpresidential himself. Obama's performance reassured undecideds; McCain's caused doubts. As went the first two debates, so went the third.

A few things struck me. First, how tactically inept McCain's team is. They loaded him up with a line they must have thought would be a real zinger: "I'm not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." But all the line did was invite the obvious, much more powerful counterpunch, which has been the center of Obama's campaign narrative: "No, you're not Bush, but what you're proposing is eight years of the same old policies." They also fed him this: "Congressman Lewis hurt my feelings by comparing me to George Wallace, and Senator Obama should disown those remarks." First, who cares about the candidates' feelings? Second, Obama's campaign had already repudiated the remarks. Most importantly, more than anything else, McCain's introduction created an opening for Obama to discuss the negativity of McCain's campaign and the calls to violence his campaign has been inciting. Polls show that personal attacks (along with Sarah Palin) are killing McCain's chances, so why would McCain's people want to feed Obama a perfect segue into that very subject? I can only surmise that when they come up with these "zingers," they don't bother to think even one move beyond. They just want to throw that haymaker, heedless of how easy it is to duck and how badly it exposes their candidate to a straight right to the face in response.

By contrast, I can't help but admire how skillfully Obama and Biden goaded McCain into bringing up William Ayers directly. By repeatedly suggesting that McCain didn't have the cajones to say it to Obama's face, they forced him to either stay mum on Ayers, thus bolstering the "no cajones" narrative, or to bring Ayers up, thereby introducing a topic polls show is blowing up in McCain's face. Amusing, when you consider how many times in the first debate McCain accused Obama of not understanding the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Oh, I think Obama knows. Did you see how well-prepared he was to brush off the Ayers nonsense? He knew exactly what was coming because he manipulated his opponent into bringing it with him.

It was interesting to see how deeply moderator Bob Schieffer has drunk from the cup of false equivalency. "Senator Obama, you've said McCain is erratic and losing his bearings... Senator McCain, you've said Obama is disrespectful, dishonorable etc. Why are you both so negative?" As I've argued before, this "equivalency" is a chimera. First, and without even considering follow-on effects (we'll consider those effects in a moment), attacks on your opponent's patriotism and barely veiled accusations of treason ("Senator Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election," "Senator Obama's blind ambition always puts himself ahead of his country," etc.) are far worse than suggestions that your opponent is, for example, "erratic." Second, there's the question of the accuracy of the charges in question. Is "erratic" really an inapt way to describe the behavior of a man who "suspended" his campaign, whatever that meant in fact, and pledged not to show up for the first debate until Congress had passed bailout legislation, then de-suspended his campaign and showed up for the debate when Congress had made no progress? Under the circumstances, I'd call "erratic" charitable. Third, there's the danger of violence. Suggesting McCain is "losing his bearings" is unlikely to encourage anyone to take a shot at him. By comparison, suggesting that Obama pals around with terrorists... that he doesn't see America the way you and I do... that he's a radical who was taught and ghost-written by terrorists... is playing with fire. Meaning that fourth, McCain and Palin are complicit in the hateful calls to violence their campaign rallies produce. I see no such complicity in anything coming from Obama or Biden.

I guess it's all how you define "attack," though. Because at one point, McCain accused Obama of launching attack ads against McCain's health care plan. Presumably this hurt McCain's feelings as much as Congressman Lewis's condemnation of his campaign tactics. Presumably McCain was factoring in ads critical of his policies when he claimed Obama has spent unprecedented amounts on negative ads.

(Memo to McCain camp: when voters get turned off by attack ads, they're not thinking of attacks on the candidates' policies. They're thinking of attacks on the candidates' character. And rightly so.)

I couldn't help laughing when McCain blamed his negativity on Obama's refusal to do a series of townhall meetings. "If my opponent had only agreed to a format favorable to me [actually, I'd argue the second debate proved McCain was mistaken in this assessment], I wouldn't have had to resort to distortions and demagoguery!" I suppose this is the current Republican notion of personal responsibility.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the debate was McCain's inability to hide his anger, disgust, and sarcasm. The references to how "I admire Senator Obama's eloquence." The gratuitous, repeated mention that Obama hasn't traveled to South America: "Maybe if you'd go there, you'd understand better." The "I'm sure you're aware Senator Obama...". The constant mugging for the camera.

As I mentioned above, polls show that McCain's negativity is killing him. So either his people are in denial about what the polls show, or McCain simply can't help himself. Neither explanation makes me comfortable with the notion of a President McCain. Do you want in the Oval Office someone in denial, surrounded by others in denial (does that sound a bit... deja vu?). Do you want someone who can't stop himself from engaging in behavior that he knows is bad for him, who has that little control over himself? I don't.

At one point, Obama said the health of the economy is critical because never in history has there been a country whose economy declined and who maintained its military primacy. Fair enough, but I find troubling the notion that our economic health is important primarily because we need a healthy economy to retain military superiority. Surely there are more important reasons for a healthy economy than the maintenance of military strength? On the issue of Imperial America, Obama doesn't strike me as about Change at all.

Part of what consistently hurts McCain in these campaigns is how obviously nervous he is. Look how much he blinks. Blinking is a classic sign of nervousness, and is also associated with lying. Whether viewers are consciously aware of it or not, over the course of three debates and innumerable interviews, McCain comes across as either afraid of Obama or deceptive or both. Neither quality is something many people want to see in a president.

As a novelist, I can't help my fascination between the campaigns' respective grasp of effective communication, of text and subtext. When you're writing dialogue, "text" means what's actually said, which in art as in life is largely discounted; "subtext" means what's meant and actually communicated. Obama's people understand the distinction. Obama's text consisted of many things: discussion of his health care plan, his plans for the economy, etc. It was all in the service of his subtext, which was what he really wanted to communicate: "I'm serious. I'm presidential. I'm not a radical. You can trust me in the White House."

By comparison, McCain seems to believe text and subtext are the same. He believes that when he expresses contempt for Obama, viewers will be encouraged to feel contempt, too. In fact, the contempt text reveals an unhelpful subtext: angry, thin-skinned, insecure, cranky old man. Three debates, and McCain never once demonstrated that he or the people around him understand the distinction. If you think effective communication is an important skill in a president, McCain offers few grounds for confidence.

It'll be interesting to see whether Obama's lead will grow wider over the next twenty days. It'll be even more interesting -- and productive -- to see whether a crushing loss will result in a reformed Republican party. I see two general possibilities. First, enough Republicans will be persuaded by the results of the election to honestly grapple what's gone wrong with the party and to return to Republican principles, in which case the Republicans will be able to mount a worthy and capable challenge to President Obama in 2012. Second, a rump coalition will remain in denial, with Sarah Palin as their standard bearer. They'll come up with all manner of excuses for their loss, mostly having to do with the liberal media, voter fraud, and other such transparently lame excuses (with today's Republicans, personal responsibility is always for someone else). They'll nominate Sarah Palin in 2012, which I expect will produce another stunning Republican defeat. At that point, some portion of the denialists will begin to grapple with reality, in which case the Republicans will again have a chance to return to being a worthwhile political party, only in 2016 rather than in 2012. Either way, the longer they wait to honestly face their shortcomings, the worse off they will be, and the worse off America.


Anonymous said...

McCain on FOX: "Lose the debates - does not lose the election!" Watch interview here:

smartblackboy said...

Barack Obama won by being smooth jazz - boring but soothing.

Anonymous said...

On the issue of Imperial America, Obama doesn't strike me as about Change at all.

I agree. But surprised I'm not. Going back for several presidential elections, it's given that at some point the candidates -- Republican or Democrat, doesn't matter -- need to reassure the electorate in no subtle way that as a President of the United States of America, they will not hesitate to use military force and will reserve the right to strike anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world. Whether a candidate after candidate makes this "official" declaration because the voters expect to hear this or because the candidates labor under the assumption that this is what the citizen-voters need to hear from their next president, I can't tell. Do the US voters need and expect to hear this, quote US presidential aspirant, Senator Obama (The Agent of Change...), "...[W]e should never hesitate to use military force, and I will not, as president, in order to keep the American people safe"? That change is welcome as long as this one thing does not change? Or is it just one more Grand Myth?

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've come to the conclusion that McCain can't help his negativity-it's who he is or has become on facing his demise. An excellent analysis by Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker although not as good as this one.
Nice meeting you at Bouchercon.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see you do, at minimum, a guest commentary on 'Countdown'. Your style and insight strongly remind me of Keith O.'s.

Anonymous said...

You never cease to amaze me with your blogs. Amazing job. I'm bookmarking your blog so I can read it more often. =)


Anonymous said...

"For me, the most interesting aspect of the debate was McCain's inability to hide his anger, disgust, and sarcasm."

I can certainly agree with you here. McCain's nonverbals spoke louder than his words, and whether they were intentional or not, communicated a message that ran contrary to the one I would have liked to have seen from a presidential candidate.

Lauri said...

My question remains, why do we only have two parties? Historically, it was “third” parties that ran strong platforms such as women’s rights to vote, an end to child labor, and effective regulation of the economy. By disrupting voter loyalties of the two major parties, third parties also affect the outcome of elections. Is that why they are absent from this year’s debates? Is a two party system more effective than a three party system, or simply more damaging to the two major parties? Have we forgotten Perot on stage with Bush and Clinton in 1992? Why do American’s only get a choice between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’? What happened to the ‘good’, the ‘bad’, and the ‘ugly’?

Just musing….

And a quick reminder….Women only received the right to vote 88 years ago…less than a life time. Prior to 1920, for over 70 years, the issue was a bloody, murderous battle, so please, honor your foremothers! Women please VOTE! Men, please encourage the women in your lives to accompany you and VOTE!

Anonymous said...

I wonder what percentage of voters know what "false equivalency" means? 'Cause it's among the most manipulative psychological tactics there are. Make you victim look as bad as you, by saying so. Wow.

A few commentators said that they were impressed with McCain's supposed "zinger" line. I have no idea why. Like Clinton's "the kind of change you can Xerox."


- S. Burks

PBI said...


Excellent post.

I think McCain can't help himself; he's got a sense of entitlement to the presidency (he kissed all the right Republican rings after letting W. smear him in 2000, after all) that simply betrays him.

I also think, however, that his campaign staff is possibly one of the worst in modern history. It is a mark of how execrable the entire GOP field was through the primaries that McCain made it this far; usually the wholly inept have been eliminated at this point, but not in 2008. Rick Davis, Tucker Bounds, Nancy Pfortenhauer and Douglas Holtz-Eakin are every bit as reactive and tactical as their candidate, and every bit as disconnected from the mainstream. In microcosm, for instance, McCain's attempt to zing Obama with the health care fine that would be imposed on "Joe the Plumber" (God, I am already so sick of that name!) represents this; McCain thought he had Obama in his sights, and Obama calmly answered - to McCain's very evident confusion - that the fine would be zero, just as he has said in the past and just as is explained in his policy papers. There is no way that, as a candidate, McCain's staff should have put him in a position like that.

With regard to your predictions for the GOP, I am going to lean more toward your second scenario. The in-fighting, back-stabbing and self-destruction we're witnessing as McCain's campaign founders is still in its early stages. The Limbaugh's and Hannity's - not to mention the McCains and Palins - of the world have so over-stepped the bounds of anything that will appeal to anyone but the hardest of the hard core base, that they have essentially wiped out several decades of work by the Republicans to install a functioning and on-message political machine that can claim the center. I can see Palin being a standard-bearer for this hardest of the hardcore, but I think she is done on the national stage for the foreseeable future; she's embarrassed much of the "respectable" GOP establishment - causing a good portion of the damage I describe above - and has set herself up for some significant political and even legal problems back in Alaska when the smoke clears after November 4th. Throw in the economic issues we're encountering, and I think the Republican Party is in serious trouble until AT LEAST 2016, assuming a President Obama does anything approaching a credible/competent job.

Sensen No Sen

David Terrenoire said...

Excellent post, Barry. No surprise there.

What did surprise me is how I've come to appreciate Karl Rove's amoral smarts.

It is one thing to study under a master. It is another to have just the right ear for the melody of half-truths and slippery innuendo.

Lee Atwater and Karl Rove made this type of campaigning look easy. Apparently, it's not.

Some will argue that the economy blunted McCain's attacks. I think he could have made these things work if he'd been disciplined and focused.

It would also have helped if Obama hadn't been one of the smartest people I've seen in my lifetime. Damn. He, and his campaign, were miraculously buttoned up.

A few days ago I saw that the Obama people had bought a billboard inside a video game.

Inside a video game! I didn't even know such a thing was possible.

Facing that kind of sophistication for social media, a candidate who doesn't even know how to use e-mail is fighting way above his weight class.

KSR said...

Remember, way back in 2003, when the US had landed in Iraq? Our forces were slowly (quickly?) fighting their way toward Baghdad. The Iraqi’s had a Public Relations man who always wore a military uniform and insisted – very cartoonishly and dramatically – in spite all of the evidence, that his army was fighting back the infidels and in fact, were winning. Every day, this guy came on the tv and would announce a downed airplane, helicopter, a destroyed tank, etc. To listen only to him, you would have concluded that the US was getting its ass kicked. You of course, would have been wrong. One day, that man simply stopped appearing on tv. I sense that McCain is that Iraqi PR guy.

At a certain point, normal people will feel sorry for John McCain. Oh, not in a way that might alter their vote, but in the way we feel bad for someone who colossally screws up. Think of Vinko Bogataj from the opening of the old ABC Wide World of Sports “The Agony of Defeat (the skier who famously wiped out as seen here ).

John McCain has run an inept campaign. He has never settled on a message. He has never identified what it is he stands for. His body language emotes condescension and anger. His words are about being a change agent, but for what? His main talking points are rehashed discredited Republican ideas: lower taxes for the rich, reducing or eliminating pesky regulations, free market, endless war, etc. He has not demonstrated a command of any one subject. His favorite lines from every speech and debate is “I know how to….[find Bin Laden, lead a war, lower taxes, blah blah blah]. Does anybody but me see the treasonous position of McCain: that he is blackmailing Americans to vote for him so we can capture Bin Laden?! And why hasn't the CIA knocked on his door and demanded him to TELL them how to capture public enemy #1? Perhaps he doesn't really "know" at all. As an aside, my nine year old daughter, who has been watching the debates with me asked during the second debate, “If he knows how to do so much, why hasn’t he done it?” From the mouths of babes. He seems to be in a permanent state of denial (well said Barry!). And no, I don’t want a president like that.

I like to watch HBO’s Bill Maher program every Friday night. For those not familiar with the format, he has a three guest panel every week. He typically tries to get a lefty, a righty, and a journalist (presumably independent). He doesn’t always succeed in that endeavor. Regardless, if you watch the show long enough, you’ll get a sense that the Republican guests are often mean spirited in their language and ideas. It’s one thing to like lower taxes so you have more money for yourself, it’s another to be indifferent to the people whose lives are effected by public policy decisions. McCain strikes me as indifferent. He went three debates and never mentioned “middle class” once. That’s about as big a poker tell as you can get. He just doesn’t care for “Joe the Plumber” (who doesn’t even have a plumbing license, by the way!) or “Joe Six-Pack.” I am happy that the Reagan Revolution has ended. In theory, I like some of the Republican ideas. I simply can’t stand the people who righteously try to deliver them. I can’t wait for McCain to be put out of his misery. I suspect he can’t wait for it either. Afterall, he’s achieved the goal I assume he set out to achieve: he will permanently be in the books of presidential history. As a loser.

On a completely different note, can someone out there help me with something? Republicans believe principally in less government interference, right? Why then do they want the government to force all women who get pregnant to have the baby? Isn’t that the ultimate in government interference? I don’t get it.

Fran said...

Well, ksr, you saw McCain's position on women's "health" issues. That should explain it all. I honestly believe the man's a true misogynist. He may be superficially charming to women, but I don't believe he takes us at all seriously.

Anonymous said...

Hey Barry -- Great post as usual.

Re McCain's accusing Obama of attack ads against his healthcare plan: This was one of the many moments during the debate when I had to laugh out loud for the very reason you've pointed out, i.e., McCain's equating of attacks on a candidate's policies with attacks on his character.

What struck me about Obama's response to this accusation was how eager he seemed to really engage McCain on something substantive. He seemed (to my eyes at least) visibly excited by the prospect of (maybe, just maybe?) being able to discuss their differences on healthcare.

Of course, McCain was unable to do that, and it most certainly came as no surprise to Obama. But Obama comes across as someone who is genuinely and sincerely interested in thinking and talking about the problems we face, and this is what has excited me about this guy from the start. That a lot of people out there can't or refuse to see this in him is for me the saddest thing about this campaign.

Tom S (Tokyo)

Anonymous said...

it's kindof sad that McCain and Palin have lowered people's standards so far that, when they finally manage to put whole sentences together during their debates suddenly they either "tie" or "won the battle" Between the two of them, they've got the pity vote locked away for sure. As for their actual competancy....

Anonymous said...

Re: false equivalencies, Lewis Black's character makes a similar point in (the otherwise forgettable) "Man of The Year." This concise description from "I cite: movies" sums it very well:

"Black criticizes television for making everything credible and therefore nothing credible. He describes the way the screen equalizes an idiotic Holocaust-denier and knowledgeable historian: both are heads, on screens, saying stuff. Their visual equivalence seems to imply an equivalent validity--just decide for yourself; everyone is entitled to her own opinion; experts disagree...

Anonymous said...

Great post barry. I didn't get a chance to watch this debate, and i've already voted for Obama. I'm a republican, but Mccain just doesn't seem as, well, smart as Obama is. He relies on experience and attacking to achieve victory, whereas obama has some fairly sensible positions.

I'm not a huge Obama fan, but he's better than the alternative. I just hope that when he is president that he is truly able to affect change.

I also wonder if Osama Bin Laden will release a video or do something before the election. Because in his eyes, Mccain would be much better for recruiting. And Obama projects a good image of America to the world, in the sense that we are open and welcoming to change. That could do a lot for our 'war on terror', perhaps more than our military can do.

Anonymous said...

I'm writing this as an outsider, non American who's not living in America.

But I just want to understand why are Americans so afraid of government intervention? Well that's the perception I get from your direct media (e.g print, digital, broadcast) anyway...

I mean, in most other OECD countries like UK, Aus, NZ, Europe, there's a fair amount of government regulation, like in the financial market, healthcare etc but we're not wholly socialists.

In fact, these other countries are more liberal in their stance on abortion, gay rights etc.

So I'm just very curious on why Americans ( in general) are so afraid of socialism.

Tia Hu said...

Hi People,

Just thought you might want to know that former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has now endorsed Barack Obama.

And yes, the politics of negativity and prejudice needs to stop. That kind of thinking only prevents the American people and our legislators from focusing on the issues and problems at hand to find and implement ethical and workable solutions. Extremes on either end of the political continuum will only keep our country polarized in unproductive and even dangerous ways.


~Tia Hu

Tia Hu said...

BTW: As much as I can appreciate our fellow U.S. citizen, Joe the Plumber; this whole campaign approach using him as a poster boy for average Americans feels like it is taking on the kind of spin doctoring used in the satire story and movie, "Wag the Dog." Remember "Good ol' Shoe"? Not saying that this takes on the proportions or satirical extremes of that movie, (which I personally enjoyed watching, lol). But the 'wagging of the dog' effect is still very evident.

And since when do plumbers make an average income? Have you looked at the kind of money plumbers often make these days?


~Tia Hu

Tia Hu said...

Lauri and All,

Lauri I stand with you sister in remembering the history of our right to vote in this country. And the third party that made so much of a difference in that struggle was the National Women's Party. Though there were also many Democrats and Republicans who supported this effort as well. Republican President William Howard Taft and his successor Democrat President Woodrow Wilson both endorsed the multiple attempts to get the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment to our U.S. Constition.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The irony in all of this is that the same paranoid and prejudicial rhetoric is always used to prevent the equal civil rights and liberties of any minority group.

We have made good progress in the U.S. in civil rights and liberties. And I for one continue to press forward in those matters, rather than turn the clock and mindset backward to less enlightened days.

Thank you! ~Tia Hu

Ali Karim said...

Hi Barry,

Good seeing you in Baltimore - The week I spent in the US was great in so far as seeing and catching up with friends and colleagues.

There is however a but. I just can't believe how people can't see thru Ms Palin's lack of intellect and her dangerously right wing viewpoint. This is frightening, very frightening because in times of economic turmoil, the extreme right wing hide in plain sight.

A very worrying time - and all you guys who have been writing away exposing the dangers that lurk ahead should Palin / McCain get in - A Huge Thank you, the world is in enough trouble without the blackshirts and rabblerousers stirring up the under-educated and the mean spirited.

Barry - you rock


PS - really looking forward to the standalone - and appreciate the signed message inside. Your work is important to me, and still wondering what John Rain is doing these days.