PHOENIX, ARIZONA — Even here in McCain’s home state, Obama was the clear winner of the debate. I attended a debate watching party at a restaurant in McCain’s home town. Democrats for America (DFA) had a private banquet room, while about one hundred restaurant goers watched the debate just outside our door. Throughout the debate, the reactions outside our door were the same as inside our banquet room.
John McCain, Barack Obama, and moderator Jim Lehrer said the word “fundamental” 16 times during the first few minutes of the debate. This was a daft reminder of the words McCain uttered while the stock market was crashing, just one week ago, “The fundamentals of the economy are sound.”
McCain was irascible and bellicose throughout the debate. At one point, he whispered angrily, in the manner of someone who has just been chided for shouting – a tactic no doubt instilled by his handlers during his debate preparation. In a shocking act of incivility, McCain refused to look Obama in the eyes during the debate. I heard an incredulous comment after the debate from a fellow debate watcher, “His mother must have taught him better than that.”
McCain’s strategy throughout the debate was to portray Obama as a naïve newcomer who just “doesn’t get it,” a starry-eyed liberal who wants to give the world a hug. In addition to refusing to look at his opponent, McCain spent the evening scowling, smirking, and chiding his opponent in the most disrespectful ways. One of McCain’s political behaviorist advisers should have explained to McCain during debate preparations that this type of base behavior is usually only appealing to the small segment of the population who intensely dislikes Obama. It was deeply unappealing to independent and undecided voters – the people McCain needs to win over.
McCain made one thing perfectly clear during the debate. The truth is inconsequential to his campaign. He made outrageous statements of mistruth throughout the debate, each one seemingly more outrageous than the next. Usually, during debates statements that are outrageous or incorrect statements are greeted with boos or even anger. At the local Democracy for America debate party that I attended, McCain’s lies were seen as so outrageous that they were met only with derisive laughter, jokes, hoots, and hollers.
McCain also made a major mistake when he attempted to mischaracterize Obama’s positions and beliefs. Mischaracterizing past actions is easier to get away with – no one can check until later, and much of the audience will never see or read the fact checks. But the mischaracterization of an opponent’s position is easily corrected when the opponent is right there. Over and over, McCain gave Obama the opportunity to deftly correct misperceptions that McCain has been creating over the last several months.
Obama left pundits dazed and confused when he proved that when he said he would practice a new kind of politics he actually meant it. His good manners and civility left the talking heads stunned – what kind of politician is actually nice to his opponent? When McCain was stumbling over the pronunciation of “Ahmadinejad,” Obama showed admirable compassion by quietly (almost imperceptible in the video) acknowledging, “That’s a tough one.”
The message the pundits missed in Obama’s agreeableness was one Obama was directing at those who might think him too liberal, too out of the mainstream, his message said, “I am not so different. I see the same problems that you see.”
The subtle message that was missed by analysts (I guess you almost have to knock someone in the head to get a point across in politics these days) was this – Obama is not so naïve. Obama sees the problems and feels the pain of middle America. Obama was saying, “I see this problem. I get it.” Where he differentiated himself, however, was in his proposed solutions. While John McCain has never met a military action he didn’t like, Obama suggests (rightly) that our military should not be our only solution, that we have a plethora of diplomatic strategies that can often keep us safer than military action.
When McCain launched into his soliloquy about his rubber bracelet, there was a collective groan from the hundred or so people in the restaurant – both those in the DFA banquet room and the restaurant goers outside our door. It was panned by nearly everyone in attendance as pure pandering and incredibly insincere.
At the end of the debate, several people in the room asked me who had won. My answer – no one will know for 24 to 48 hours, after the media (pack animals that they are) plots the course of the media narrative. After a quick surf of the web this morning, it seems the verdict is in, and Obama is the winner because he was respectful and presidential while McCain was grumpy and angry. The pundits’ advice for future debates: Obama should be more passionate and show his ire, and McCain should be more respectful and civil. Pure irony.