Most firebrand liberal types were probably taken aback initially, as I was, at Barack Obama‘s relatively placid attitude during the first 2008 presidential debate in Mississippi on Friday.
Why don’t you insist on finishing your point about Arizona and nuclear waste storage, I wondered, as Obama accepted John McCain’s talking out of turn with collegiality and PBS newsman Jim Lehrer‘s insistence that the discussion move on without a chance for him to finish with understanding. Why don’t you spell out to McCain that if he insisted on not talking about the past in Iraq then let’s not talk about the surge then, I wondered. Why don’t you explain to McCain that if you’re afraid to meet with Iran’s windbreaker-wearing president then you’re just being a coward, I thought. Can’t Obama set the stammering old fool straight on the concepts of tactics versus strategy after McCain’s intemperate and innacurate outburst on the subject, I wondered?
But the debate rolled along with McCain making one lame joke or snide remark after another, and Obama kept making his points, challenging McCain on issues and staring him down confidently. This is not exactly the way one wins over the cable TV pundits–for example, MSNBC’s moronic David Gregory offered praise for McCain soon after the debate ended and then after that, when offering a pro forma “on the other hand” point about Obama making an effective attack by linking McCain to George W. Bush, actually slipped up and stated that Obama had done a good job linking Obama to Bush. Err, woops. Or not. Everyone knows that Bush will go down as a villain in this drama we call American history–and the gushing Gregory was ready, along with plenty of other TV loudmouths, to crown McCain the winner. He won “on points,” opined one of the other pundits. Obama, they effused, even said that he agreed with McCain at points when, um, he agreed with what he had said. What a mistake, they insisted!
Of course TV “journalists” and commentators thrive on nastiness and cheap shots–they’re the coin of the realm–but from my house out here in the heartland I saw a debate that was absolutely dominated by political “inside baseball” (as Obama described it) and that mainly covered issues (especially as the night wore on) that, in reality, hardly anyone cares about. Convoluted discussions of pipelines in the Caucuses and Senate budget requests are at the very margins of the national consciousness. So, I thought, Obama didn’t come out swinging (Chicago style) but didn’t have any problem batting down McCain’s weak arguments either (insofar as any of McCain’s hollering was even coherent enough to be considered arguments). Still, Obama didn’t handle the debate the way I would–and anyone who has ever tried to debate political matters with me knows the demoralizing effect that my copious facts, intense demeanor and unexpected counter-attacks can have on an adversary–so that must have been an average performance by Obama then, passable but not overpowering?
Actually, no. And this is one of the reasons that I am such a fan of Barack Obama–I have much to learn from him. I’m sure that he could summon rapid-fire, guerrilla debate tactics designed to devastate the enemy quickly at the drop of a hat, if he wanted to. But Obama knew that McCain was already his prisoner–and in the great American tradition, it was time to torture him.
Obama let McCain say what he wanted, and didn’t seem too worried. He stood tall, made his points, but didn’t try to break McCain’s political back by humiliating him. Even though Obama actually has the judgment to lead (unlike McCain), he knew that a debate that discussed arcane foreign policy matters wasn’t going to be decided by that strange creature known as the “undecided voter” on the specific arguments made, many of which are quite beyond those low-information individuals who still haven’t decided on a candidate. Instead, it would be decided on emotional matters, on issues of temperament, poise, even appearance. Obama was going for those voters, and he knows that they are saps. So he would jab McCain (with things like the Spain reference) and then back away congenially and let McCain rage about it. The debate’s format was supposed to encourage interaction between the candidates, and Obama quickly assumed control of his captive audience. Like any good American interrogator these days, Obama knew how to use a combination of disorienting falsehoods (like saying the Georgia-Russia conflict was really Russia’s fault), cultural taboos (calling McCain “John” over and over) and brutal physical coercion (towering over him and looking right at him as though he not only belonged there but also like he was wondering if McCain truly did).
And it really seemed to work. The ill-tempered McCain raged on and on, making nasty comments and shuffling his papers around, while the country wondered why they should elect such a bossy yet weak and cowardly old braggart. The pundits finally quited down, the polls started coming in, and the truth became clear–Barack Obama had won the debate.