I have bemoaned the fact that politics these days are all about gloss and image, simple statements and sound bites, with little to no room for complex thought. That it matters more whether a candidate looks presidential than whether they can actually answer a policy question, or that people care more whether they’d like to have a beer with a person than whether that person is actually conversant with foreign affairs or the economy.
But after last night’s debate, I revised my opinion, because Barack Obama won on a level that utilized the medium to a profound extent.
He took a bit of a beating early on on the economy, letting McCain repeat the word “spending” until he was blue in the face and avoid any talk of the crisis on Wall Street caused by the very deregulation that McCain’s chief economic adviser Phil Gramm recommends.
But Obama was calm and smiled, did his best to actually answer moderated Jim Lehrer’s questions, and held his own—though I hope he’s better prepared for the next debate to break into McCain’s ritualized talk of government spending, to point out exactly what a “spending freeze on everything but defense” would actually do for people who need government programs.
He let McCain score points by talking about veterans early on, but his best moment of the debate came after McCain told a grandfatherly yarn about having a bracelet on his wrist given him by the mother of a young man who died in Iraq who asked him not to let “the troops have died in vain.”
Obama came back with a bracelet of his own, with the actual name of the Army veteran whose mother gave it to him, and said that she asked him not to let any more mothers go through what she was going through.
I waited in vain myself for Obama to make mention of McCain’s failure to show up to vote on the Webb G.I. Bill, a point that has angered the Iraq veterans of my acquaintance to the point where they’d never vote for McCain, but he let that one go, perhaps avoiding snark at McCain’s attempt to rush back to Washington to fix the economic crisis, only to change his mind several times. (Where are the “flip-flop” ads, eh?)
On foreign affairs, though, Obama was calm, he was on message, he was clearly better aware of actual events, leaders, and even the opinions of McCain’s own adviser, Henry Kissinger, than McCain was. More importantly, he explained things in simple terms and when McCain started in on his own tirades, he would calmly state “That’s not true.”
McCain’s refrain, “He just doesn’t understand,” sounded petulant by comparison, and also gave Joe Biden plenty of fodder to turn around on McCain’s own rather inexperienced running mate next week.
A couple of huge gaffes that I noted: McCain referred to arming the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union, failing to mention (and Obama again failing to capitalize) that Osama Bin Laden was one of those “freedom fighters.” McCain also retreated from his earlier comments on Obama’s willingness to sit down with foreign leaders, harping instead on the word “preconditions,” but saying, “I’ll sit down with anybody.” His insistence on “preconditions” made him sound ridiculous a few seconds later when he tried to accuse Obama of “parsing words.”
Obama also won big points when he refused to take McCain’s jab about voting against funding for the troops, pointing out that McCain voted against funding for the troops with a timetable for withdrawal, and Obama voted against funding for them without a timetable.
But I’m well aware that the debates are about more than substantive policy points. John F. Kennedy, the first post-TV debate president, won largely because he came off as calm and comfortable under the lights, where Nixon wasn’t prepared. Eight years later, Nixon captured the presidency by having the slickest team of ad men this side of “Mad Men” work his image into something America thought it wanted.
And on that count, even the Republican commentators who thought McCain actually won on points had to admit that Obama appeared more presidential and more likable. They noted that McCain couldn’t look at his opponent, while Obama had no problem looking straight at McCain when asked to by Lehrer.
Obama agreed with McCain without appearing uncomfortable, something that could well help his image as one willing to reach across the aisle (an idea both candidates harped on, though Obama again gave more concrete examples of having done so). It also bolstered the strength of his “That’s not true” remarks, because he didn’t appear to be disagreeing just to be disagreeable, while McCain did.
Obama came off not as an elitist Yale debate-team captain like some other candidates we can remember, but as a guy who’s going to straight-talk to America, who’s going to agree when he thinks people are right and disagree when they’re wrong, and who isn’t afraid of standing up under lights and making tough statements.
McCain’s repeated references to not being “Miss Congeniality” ended up a bit confusing—a veiled reference to his running mate? An attempt to paint Obama as shallow? Some sort of dogwhistle to beauty pageant parents that I’m not familiar with?
Or maybe it was just an acknowledgement that presidential campaigns since, at least, Kennedy have become a sort of beauty pageant interrupted by demands to know which candidate is a better drinking buddy. However, if this campaign is going to be a beauty pageant or an image contest, McCain’s got a ways to go on his appearances, and his command of substance isn’t nearly good enough to make up for it.