Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debating the debaters ( the 'Hey Joe' edition)

So, the third and final presidential debate is now in the books, and we now embark on the final 19 days until we find out who our next president will be. And with all that wrapped up, why not offer my own opinion of it. Hopefully this won't be as controversial as the Nova M article I wrote.

In the three debates that have transpired, we saw the two main candidates vying for the office. We saw them face to face. We heard their proposals. We observed their style. And we noticed how tightly controlled the campaigns and personnas of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are.

A common complaint heard over the past few weeks was how dry and boring the debates were. Media pundits were starved for red meat, and got soyburger. They wanted something juicy to write about, something akin to a face-slapping soap opera.They wanted yelling. They wanted gaffes. They wanted soundbytes. They wanted smackdowns. They really wanted blood.

I'm talking about Gerald Ford in 1976, claiming that the Soviets did not control Eastern Europe. Or Ronald Reagan telling Jimmy Carter "there you go again" or cracking a hilarious joke about his age in 1984 that even made his rival, Walter Mondale, laugh. Or Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he's "no Jack Kennedy." Or Bill Clinton scolding George H.W. Bush for attacking his patriotism. Or James Stockdale wondering who and where he was. Okay, nobody wanted Stockdale. Instead, we got two candidates who were heavily coached and were adament with their own styles.

Of the two, McCain was the most unpredictable. Throughout the debates, he has been aggressive, impulsive, agitated, confrontational and at times somewhat rude. He has also obviously shifted his demeanor based on feedback (mostly negative) from the previous two outings. Obama wisely used the debates as a closing pitch to people wondering what kind of president he would be. He consistently came across as calm, cool and confident, while clinging tightly to his seemingly well-informed policy agenda and swatting away juvenile cheap shots. After running through and surviving the Clinton Machine gauntlet earlier in the year, he seemed pretty hardened. He certainly was not intimidated, and there's no doubt that his style left a strong impression on viewers.

For last night, Obama was likely encouraged to play to his perceived strengths. Stay calm and cool. With polls showing his lead over McCain rising higher every day, he didn't need to deviate from the successful formula. If it ain't broke, why fix it? McCain, on the other hand, has been getting lots of heat from his supporters, who wanted him to get tough on his opponent. The war-loving crowd wanted aggression. They wanted bullying. They wanted to make Obama squirm. McCain, who's chances for victory have been shrinking day by day, promised he'd 'kick his ass.'

Of the three debates, last night's final showdown produced the most fireworks. As opposed to the traditional stand-up setting of the first one and the town hall format of the second, this one featured the two candidates seated on plush swivel chairs facing both the moderator, Bob Scheiffer and each other, only a few feet away. It was like a negotiation session at the kitchen table. And the looser format allowed each of them to swwp away many of their grievences.

The debate, taking place on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 700 points, opened with questions about their economic plan, and which of their programs they would have to sacrifice. Obama was down to business, though a bit vague on specifics. McCain started throwing verbal punches right off the ropes. He stumbled badly when he inexplicably went off topic launched into an explanation of his energy policy, likely leading viewers to likely wonder if he was channeling the spirit of Admiral Stockdale.

Of the previous moderators, Scheiffer was the most effective. He has a straight-forward, down-home style and seemed to be the only one not afraid to cut to the chase. With many media types and spectators wondering when they'd square off over unsavory types like Bill Ayers and Charles Keating, Scheiffer put it on the table, chastising the negative campaigns being waged, and challenging each of the candidates to Obama's 'say it to my face' challenge. McCain, who's campaign has devolved into 'don't vote for the other guy,' went first and feigned hurt at Rep. John Lewis' comparison of McCain to George Wallace, while appearing to fight back fake crockodile tears. Oh, and he brought up Ayers in the same breath. Obama retaliated effectively, telling McCain virtually everything he should know about his relationship with Ayers. And he also wondered why McCain didn't denounce the people at McCain/Palin rallies who shouted things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him.' McCain's rationale of waging a hostile campaign because Obama would not participate in a series of town hall debates with him was transparent and weak.

In a later question, designed to get some sort of reaction from Obama about McCain's controversial running mate Sarah Palin, Obama didn't take the bait. He merely acknowledged that Palin has been successful at rallying the far-right base. McCain strained to find ways to attack Obama's running mate, Joe Biden.

We didn't get a whole lot of 'gotcha' moments last night. The closest was a well-rehearsed line that McCain directed toward Obama. McCain knew Obama would compare him to President Bush and when he did, McCain saw his opening. He snapped, "if you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have done it four years ago." Obama wasn't rattled in the least, landing a quick comeback that it was hard to tell the two apart. In the meantime, McCain, who had obviously not been listening to Obama, kept up the 'tax-and-spend liberal' meme, making me wonder if he thinks he's running against Walter Mondale. The Bush line will get play on the news channels, but I don't think it will go further than that. We all know McCain has been building his political ambitions over the past few years by kissing Bush's ass.

Following the debate, snarky media pundits jumped over each other to declare a Toledo-area plumber named Joe Wurzelbacher to be the winner of last night's debate. McCain initially brought up "Joe the plumber," who was shown a few days ago talking with Obama during the Democrat's door-knocking tour of Toledo (and is allegedly related to former McCain sugardaddy Charles Keating). Obviously, McCain took delight in a voter (in Ohio, no less) telling Obama that he was a small businessman who is wary of his tax plan. But bringing up Joe was a move that could easily backfire in the long run. The main thing that the low-key exchange between Obama and Wurzelbacher showed is that Obama took five minutes, I repeat, FIVE minutes expaining to one person how his economic plan would benefit him. Considering that the impatient and short-tempered McCain likely does not have these types of lengthy exchanges with individual prospective voters, this is pretty damned impressive. Obama is actually willing to discuss his plan one-on-one with a guy who is obviously not a likely Obama voter. That says alot, particularly since the next president will be having these types of discussions with other detractors, such as Vladimir Putin. But McCain obviously likes Joe, and wanted to milk the situation for all it was worth. In fact, he mentioned him roughly 11 times last night. McCain was able to use the likely bewildered Joe the plumber as a way of explaining his proposals, but for the most part, he did Obama a favor by further showing how he connects with individual voters. Joe the plumber could come back to haunt McCain.

McCain had the toughest challenge last night. His last two debate performances were a bit erratic, but not terrible. To jump-start his campaign and have any chance of building momentum, he had to be on top of his game. And he needed Obama to stumble. Obama, playing it safe, was virtually the same guy he has been - calm, cool, confident and collected. He was unflappable, and as a result, many could fairly claim that he came out on top once again.

McCain has been reinventing himself every week, and has done little to combat the Obama campaign's charges of erratic behavior. His underdog campain has been reeking of desperation as of late. It appears that more and more people are feeling more secure with Obama's steely approach than McCain's high-strung panicky demeanor. Obama seems a man in control. McCain seems like a man trying to control himself.

So, that was the third and final debate of the 2008 election campaign. It was obviously designed as a media smorgasbord with lots and lots of red meat. It was supposed to provoke controversy. It was supposed to spice up what could have resembled yet another wonky episode of "Meet The Press." And it was probably supposed to allow the candidates, who have been launching verbal volleys at each other for months, to clear the table with all the negative attack stuff and to vent their hostilities. Here's hoping that worked. All in all, it was the best of the three debates.


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