Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mississippi Mud

Dispatch 11
Mississippi Mud
David Levi Strauss

No one got hurt in this first debate, and under the circumstances, I think that’s bad for Obama. John McCain limped into this thing after two days of wildly erratic behavior, suspending his campaign and announcing that he wouldn’t show up in Mississippi for the debate, because he had to rush to Washington to solve the financial crisis. After demanding a meeting at the White House with President Bush, Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke, and the Congressional leadership, McCain was ambushed by House Republicans, who decided to oppose Bush’s bailout. After that, McCain reportedly sat off to the side mumbling while Obama asked tough questions of the Treasury secretary and others. When Obama announced that he was going to appear at Old Miss with or without him, McCain decided he could spare the hour and a half to be there, too, after all.

The debate proceeded as if none of this had happened. Jim Lehrer orchestrated an elegant, measured discussion of the issues, with each candidate politely remaining within his time limits. There were no outbursts, gaffes, or zingers, to speak of. The problem with this, for Obama, is that it made McCain look like a perfectly reasonable, august statesman and executive, rather than the reckless, arrogant grandstander he’d been just hours before. McCain looked great tonight, much better than he ever looks when giving a speech. Obama always looks good, so there’s no relative gain.

Even though Obama will always prevail over McCain in any public, refereed debate on the issues, McCain still managed to get his broad, old-fashioned strokes in, painting Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal who will raise business taxes and drive jobs overseas, as a cut-and-runner who will lose the war in Iraq and dishonor the deaths of over 4000 service men and women, and as an inexperienced, naïve upstart who won’t be able to stand up to America’s enemies. Obama is impatient with such broad strokes and doesn’t reciprocate, preferring to draw more precise and subtler connections to make more specific points.

The only real advantage to Obama last night arose from body language and speech tone. From the beginning, Obama often looked at and spoke directly to McCain, while McCain spoke only to Lehrer, ignoring Obama and refusing to look at him. The effect of this was cumulative and significant. As the debate wore on, McCain seemed more evasive and equivocal, refusing to face his opponent head-on. He always referred to his opponent as “Senator Obama,” while Obama called him “John,” and came right at him, honestly and without guile. On a number of occasions, McCain’s tone veered into the sarcastic and even contemptuous, and attentive viewers glimpsed two very different approaches to political discourse.

[Filed on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, after the first Presidential debate at the University of Mississippi’s Oxford campus.]


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