September 26, 2008
Whose Opening Advantage?
By Mary Lyon
Who won? They both did. And didn't.
Here's what strikes me about the opening round of presidential debate season: the one-liners, the facts (or not), the jabs, the international names and one mispronunciation, the energy, and the eye contact. Or in McCain's case, the lack thereof. Among other things.
I think John McCain won most of the buzz phrase battles at the first debate at the University of Mississippi. No points for rehashing some of the same old lines from how many campaign speeches past ("I will make them famous and you will know their names," "Obama has the most liberal record in the Senate," and the ever-popular place-holder "I believe in the United States of America"). He added to his nicknames - "The Sheriff" now joins the pantheon along with "Maverick" and "No Miss Congeniality."
McCain did not proclaim himself "The Scold," per se, but that's how he behaved. Multiple times, he pushed the same statement - that Obama "doesn't get it," or "doesn't understand." Repetition is a very effective and compelling tactic in advancing any argument - as we've seen from the track record of the Bush administration and its many apologists and spinners. From the rationale for war to the justification for spying, looting, cheating, torturing, and shredding the Constitution, if they can repeat something often enough, it seems to become a de facto truth in the management of overall public perception. That, combined with McCain's gruff facial expressions, his occasional dismissive smirks, and his failure to look Obama in the eye, might leave a slight taste of arrogance and contempt. It also did not serve McCain that while he looked somewhat pasty and pale, the strobing effect of his narrowly striped tie was distracting and discomfiting.
I admit I was surprised there wasn't much melodrama or histrionics like those we've had to endure from McCain in the past few days, with the world breathlessly wondering "will he or won't he" even show up. I was expecting McCain to be still flustered over his failed stunt in trying to parachute into Washington to save the country's economy from Wall Street to Main Street. He did not appear exhausted, or off-balance. But still, there was that dismissive smugness and a relentless offense - that, at least to me, belied his words a little. His verbal presentation tried to suggest a sense of reasonableness and wisdom derived from long experience, that yes, he would, too, sit down with anybody, even our adversaries. But his belligerence hinted that any future encounters with an international opponent might not involve much diplomacy. Besides, I wondered if he'd be willing to look Putin or Ahmadinejad in the eye more than he did with Obama. At least it wasn't another roller coaster ride, like the wild and almost clownish misadventure on which McCain strapped much of America regarding the Wall Street crisis this week.
Barack Obama scored points just by showing up. Foreign policy is regarded more as McCain's most comfortable turf. But Obama had answers, strong statements, and comebacks for virtually every attack McCain threw at him. FINALLY, Obama made the point I've been waiting for SOMEONE to make about McCain's constant lovemaking with the surge in Iraq. "John, you like to pretend that the war started in 2007." Indeed, it bears repeating, ad nauseam, that the Iraq debacle began in 2003 and only recently evolved to something slightly less than gag-worthy, even if it still hasn't achieved its stated political objectives. It was also worth bringing up, several times, how crucial presidential judgment will be in the international challenges our country will face in the next four years - especially those which have been caused by the nearly incomprehensible bungling of the last seven-and-some years.
Obama did win his share of zingers, challenging McCain's recent misstatements about Spain, his opponent's attachment to Bush policies, and his refusal to allow McCain to maintain sole ownership of a bracelet belonging to a lost American troop in Iraq. I often yell at my TV when I see a Democrat concede a point to a Republican by not standing up to the Republican's misguided or flat-out wrong assertions. Too often a Democrat or liberal will let him/herself be shouted down by a louder and more loutish conservative opponent. Obama didn't do that. Granted sometimes he and McCain wound up talking over each other, but at least Obama stayed in there pitching and wouldn't allow most of McCain's assertions to stand unchallenged or uncorrected.
I would have liked Obama to go for the jugular a little more, but there was one thing that served him very well - if perhaps a little on the too-subtle side. After the last few days we've spent watching John McCain flail about, in and out of Washington, in or out of his campaign, in or out of the debate, it was a refreshing contrast to see Obama's poise, steady stability, and unflappability. There was one candidate who looked presidential on stage at Ole Miss, and another candidate who looked excitable and sputtering. With the volatility everywhere, from the markets to the Middle East, Obama appeared commanding, comfortable with the issues and with his stand on them. Every time McCain declared him naïve or inexperienced or lacking in understanding, Obama had a comeback that knocked that premise down.
For the next time, I'd advise McCain to do better with the age jokes (the misfire about the financial upheaval being the worst "in our time, and I've been around a little while"). Your angry-old-dude schtick could use a little softening with some spontaneous humor. And why did you forget the flag pin - especially since your opponent made sure his was easily visible. And I'd also say thank-you for finally admitting that this government did indeed engage in torture, even if I know for certain that wasn't your intention at all. It still needed to be said. And for Obama, STOP complimenting and concurring with John McCain. PLEASE. You're not in the "McCain is correct" business. Not if you expect to win this thing.