In its pre-show to the third Presidential debate, CNN predicted that Obama would "try to avoid any gaffes" and McCain, behind in recent polls, would probably try to find a way to change that fact. Tonight's debate would be unique, CNN assured me, because the two candidates would be seated, at a table, facing each other (1).
The reality-show framework of modern political campaigning foregrounds situation, unique challenges, and viewer response. The focus used to be the candidates’ personalities and character—before that—though perhaps only in some mythical past—the emphasis was on national issues and, um, actual debate.
Perhaps in the near future we can hope to see candidates in an even greater variety of telegenic settings--lying prone in a potato field, answering telepathically broadcast questions while disco dancing, or holding a tribal hall meeting on an island where fashion models eat live slugs.
In the third debate, moderator Bob Schieffer prodded the two candidates to criticize each others’ campaigns and choices of running mates. No doubt in hommage to Jerry Springer.
McCain complained that Obama’s ads misrepresented his positions and tied him unfairly to George W. Bush. McCain even managed to lob a zinger, chiding Obama, “If you wanted to run against George Bush you should have run four years ago.”
Obama pointed to McCain’s and Sarah Palin’s inadequate responses to their audiences’ rabid jeering of Obama’s name—shouting, not kindly, “traitor” and “kill him.”
But Obama's most conspicuous response was to laugh quietly yet derisively at McCain’s bluster.
This debate had the icky feeling of 90 minutes spent at a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving—with McCain playing the self-pitying elder barely containing his rage at others’ lack of deference to age and reputation—and Obama playing the mocking teen, shaking his head in disbelief at the elders’ passive aggression and blindness to nuance.
Though McCain criticized Obama’s campaign for unfairly linking him with Bush, McCain’s main tactic in this debate was to enumerate Obama’s associations with people like Bill Ayers, Hugo Chavez, and Congressman John Lewis. So, I take it, guilt by association is bad only when directed against McCain.
Clearly, McCain knew he needed to do something to bolster his flagging poll numbers. He attacked Obama’s strengths—insinuating that the Illinois senator’s oratorical skills were deceptive, while lacking sufficient skills to drive the point home.
He also introduced a semi-fictitious character, Joe the Plumber—no relation to Joe Six Pack or to me—based on a real person who apparently had spoken with Obama at a recent Democratic rally.
McCain leveled his eyes directly at the camera to speak to “Joe,” promising him to be a better President for the working man than Obama would be.
Not particularly effective to begin with, the chat with “Joe” became so bizarre that Obama himself began, tongue in cheek, to address McCain’s imaginary friend, too.
The thrust of this tactic was, it seems to me, to pander to traditionally Democratic, white, blue-collar workers with reservations about Obama, based on—no secret here—Obama’s skin color.
As in the previous two debates, Obama seemed the more confident and poised of the two—blamable only for, if anything, a detectable air of condescension and, at his worse, the dreary, nerdy sing-song I associate with Jeopardy contestants.
And, again, McCain’s almost constant blinking worked against any attempt the senator might have been making to appear to be telling the truth.
In fact, I sensed something a little bit creepy in McCain’s mask-like affect, a failure to convey humanity—or a working nervous system.
On some level, McCain may have succeeded in tapping into some Americans’ fears that Obama supports terrorism, wants to “spread the wealth” (i.e. "is a commie") by raising taxes and gas prices, conducts “class warfare,” and is too inexperienced (having never traveled to Colombia, for instance) and too black to be President—all the while denying that he would stoop to such tactics.
But my call is that Obama won three out of three here, conveying in each of the debates a steady calm, intelligence, and consistency nowhere apparent in his opponent.
(1) Hornick, Ed. "Obama, McCain hope to woo undecideds in debate." CNN.com. 15 Oct. 2008.