Thoughts on the Third Presidential Debate

Well, the snap polls are going heavily to Obama. This is not surprising. As I’ve argued before, the only definition of who “won” that matters is, who garnered more undecideds by virtue of his performance? By this measure, once again, Obama succeeded in his primary objective, which was to seem “presidential.” And once again, McCain failed to create doubts about Obama, while managing, through his sarcasm, visible anger and disgust, and overall lack of graciousness, to look distinctly unpresidential himself. Obama’s performance reassured undecideds; McCain’s caused doubts. As went the first two debates, so went the third.

A few things struck me. First, how tactically inept McCain’s team is. They loaded him up with a line they must have thought would be a real zinger: “I’m not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” But all the line did was invite the obvious, much more powerful counterpunch, which has been the center of Obama’s campaign narrative: “No, you’re not Bush, but what you’re proposing is eight years of the same old policies.” They also fed him this: “Congressman Lewis hurt my feelings by comparing me to George Wallace, and Senator Obama should disown those remarks.” First, who cares about the candidates’ feelings? Second, Obama’s campaign had already repudiated the remarks. Most importantly, more than anything else, McCain’s introduction created an opening for Obama to discuss the negativity of McCain’s campaign and the calls to violence his campaign has been inciting. Polls show that personal attacks (along with Sarah Palin) are killing McCain’s chances, so why would McCain’s people want to feed Obama a perfect segue into that very subject? I can only surmise that when they come up with these “zingers,” they don’t bother to think even one move beyond. They just want to throw that haymaker, heedless of how easy it is to duck and how badly it exposes their candidate to a straight right to the face in response.

By contrast, I can’t help but admire how skillfully Obama and Biden goaded McCain into bringing up William Ayers directly. By repeatedly suggesting that McCain didn’t have the cajones to say it to Obama’s face, they forced him to either stay mum on Ayers, thus bolstering the “no cajones” narrative, or to bring Ayers up, thereby introducing a topic polls show is blowing up in McCain’s face. Amusing, when you consider how many times in the first debate McCain accused Obama of not understanding the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Oh, I think Obama knows. Did you see how well-prepared he was to brush off the Ayers nonsense? He knew exactly what was coming because he manipulated his opponent into bringing it with him.

It was interesting to see how deeply moderator Bob Schieffer has drunk from the cup of false equivalency. “Senator Obama, you’ve said McCain is erratic and losing his bearings… Senator McCain, you’ve said Obama is disrespectful, dishonorable etc. Why are you both so negative?” As I’ve argued before, this “equivalency” is a chimera. First, and without even considering follow-on effects (we’ll consider those effects in a moment), attacks on your opponent’s patriotism and barely veiled accusations of treason (“Senator Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election,” “Senator Obama’s blind ambition always puts himself ahead of his country,” etc.) are far worse than suggestions that your opponent is, for example, “erratic.” Second, there’s the question of the accuracy of the charges in question. Is “erratic” really an inapt way to describe the behavior of a man who “suspended” his campaign, whatever that meant in fact, and pledged not to show up for the first debate until Congress had passed bailout legislation, then de-suspended his campaign and showed up for the debate when Congress had made no progress? Under the circumstances, I’d call “erratic” charitable. Third, there’s the danger of violence. Suggesting McCain is “losing his bearings” is unlikely to encourage anyone to take a shot at him. By comparison, suggesting that Obama pals around with terrorists… that he doesn’t see America the way you and I do… that he’s a radical who was taught and ghost-written by terrorists… is playing with fire. Meaning that fourth, McCain and Palin are complicit in the hateful calls to violence their campaign rallies produce. I see no such complicity in anything coming from Obama or Biden.

I guess it’s all how you define “attack,” though. Because at one point, McCain accused Obama of launching attack ads against McCain’s health care plan. Presumably this hurt McCain’s feelings as much as Congressman Lewis’s condemnation of his campaign tactics. Presumably McCain was factoring in ads critical of his policies when he claimed Obama has spent unprecedented amounts on negative ads.

(Memo to McCain camp: when voters get turned off by attack ads, they’re not thinking of attacks on the candidates’ policies. They’re thinking of attacks on the candidates’ character. And rightly so.)

I couldn’t help laughing when McCain blamed his negativity on Obama’s refusal to do a series of townhall meetings. “If my opponent had only agreed to a format favorable to me [actually, I’d argue the second debate proved McCain was mistaken in this assessment], I wouldn’t have had to resort to distortions and demagoguery!” I suppose this is the current Republican notion of personal responsibility.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the debate was McCain’s inability to hide his anger, disgust, and sarcasm. The references to how “I admire Senator Obama’s eloquence.” The gratuitous, repeated mention that Obama hasn’t traveled to South America: “Maybe if you’d go there, you’d understand better.” The “I’m sure you’re aware Senator Obama…”. The constant mugging for the camera.

As I mentioned above, polls show that McCain’s negativity is killing him. So either his people are in denial about what the polls show, or McCain simply can’t help himself. Neither explanation makes me comfortable with the notion of a President McCain. Do you want in the Oval Office someone in denial, surrounded by others in denial (does that sound a bit… deja vu?). Do you want someone who can’t stop himself from engaging in behavior that he knows is bad for him, who has that little control over himself? I don’t.

At one point, Obama said the health of the economy is critical because never in history has there been a country whose economy declined and who maintained its military primacy. Fair enough, but I find troubling the notion that our economic health is important primarily because we need a healthy economy to retain military superiority. Surely there are more important reasons for a healthy economy than the maintenance of military strength? On the issue of Imperial America, Obama doesn’t strike me as about Change at all.

Part of what consistently hurts McCain in these campaigns is how obviously nervous he is. Look how much he blinks. Blinking is a classic sign of nervousness, and is also associated with lying. Whether viewers are consciously aware of it or not, over the course of three debates and innumerable interviews, McCain comes across as either afraid of Obama or deceptive or both. Neither quality is something many people want to see in a president.

As a novelist, I can’t help my fascination between the campaigns’ respective grasp of effective communication, of text and subtext. When you’re writing dialogue, “text” means what’s actually said, which in art as in life is largely discounted; “subtext” means what’s meant and actually communicated. Obama’s people understand the distinction. Obama’s text consisted of many things: discussion of his health care plan, his plans for the economy, etc. It was all in the service of his subtext, which was what he really wanted to communicate: “I’m serious. I’m presidential. I’m not a radical. You can trust me in the White House.”

By comparison, McCain seems to believe text and subtext are the same. He believes that when he expresses contempt for Obama, viewers will be encouraged to feel contempt, too. In fact, the contempt text reveals an unhelpful subtext: angry, thin-skinned, insecure, cranky old man. Three debates, and McCain never once demonstrated that he or the people around him understand the distinction. If you think effective communication is an important skill in a president, McCain offers few grounds for confidence.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Obama’s lead will grow wider over the next twenty days. It’ll be even more interesting — and productive — to see whether a crushing loss will result in a reformed Republican party. I see two general possibilities. First, enough Republicans will be persuaded by the results of the election to honestly grapple what’s gone wrong with the party and to return to Republican principles, in which case the Republicans will be able to mount a worthy and capable challenge to President Obama in 2012. Second, a rump coalition will remain in denial, with Sarah Palin as their standard bearer. They’ll come up with all manner of excuses for their loss, mostly having to do with the liberal media, voter fraud, and other such transparently lame excuses (with today’s Republicans, personal responsibility is always for someone else). They’ll nominate Sarah Palin in 2012, which I expect will produce another stunning Republican defeat. At that point, some portion of the denialists will begin to grapple with reality, in which case the Republicans will again have a chance to return to being a worthwhile political party, only in 2016 rather than in 2012. Either way, the longer they wait to honestly face their shortcomings, the worse off they will be, and the worse off America.