Watching last night’s presidential debate at the jam-packed Montlake Ale House (a horde of DFAer’s pushing us DL regulars into the nooks and crannies), there was little question about who won the contest. Both the boisterous crowd and the CNN dial test audience agreed: it was no ass whooping, but Barack Obama came off as knowledgable, likeable and more in touch with average Americans than the often angry and ornery John McCain. And with this being the debate that focused on McCain’s alleged strong suit, foreign policy, that constitutes a win for Obama.
But afterwards, I stopped off at house filled with angry Irishmen, and the reaction was quite different. Strong Democrats all, they were drowning their sorrow in whiskey at what they saw as a pathetically weak performance by Obama, who failed to fight back against McCain’s frequent attacks. Almost as a chorus they complained that if Obama had said “I agree with Sen. McCain” one more time, they would have thrown a bottle at the TV set (and the Irish don’t waste the contents of bottle lightly).
They went into the debate smelling blood after McCain/Palin’s week of disastrous missteps, and they expected Obama to go in for the kill. He didn’t. And their initial and unanimous post-debate reaction was that this was big win for McCain.
Huh. Had we watched the same debate? So I went online to catch the spin and was fascinated to watch the consensus evolve over the next few hours. The early threads on the liberal blogs more closely matched the angry Irishmen than the cheerful DFAers, with many commenters lamenting the same lack of backbone and aggression, a sentiment echoed by a handful of CW pundits who quickly jumped to set the frame by calling the debate for McCain. But it wasn’t long before this spin got spun around, with McCain’s ornery demeanor, his refusal to even look at Obama, let alone make eye contact, and his failure to mention “the middle class” even once beginning to dominate the conversation.
Then the instant polls and focus group results came in, and the notion of an Obama win quickly took hold amongst a majority of the media commentators. By pretty convincing margins both independent and undecided voters consistently gave the edge to Obama, both in his performance and in his positives. Obama talked about issues and connected with voters, whereas McCain appeared “antagonistic”, even “contemptuous,” and while the latter may play well with McCain’s antagonistic and contemptuous Republican base, the folks in the middle… um… not so much.
I don’t know if Obama’s cool and collected debate demeanor is a strategy or simply who he is, but as much as I would personally like to see our candidate punch back as good as he gets—and better—I think last night’s approach ultimately serves him well. Not because voters don’t want to see their presidents appear strong—they most emphatically do—but Obama, perhaps uniquely, must carefully avoid appearing too strong. If you know what I mean….
Ahem… um… as McCain might phrase it, “the point is“… while we may have come a long way toward fulfulling Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, white America doesn’t much like its big, black men to appear aggressive or threatening… and in case you hadn’t noticed, Barack Obama is a big, black man.
Oh sure, on the football field or the basketball court such aggression is accepted and even celebrated, but in the political arena the standards are quite different. Yes, in politics, we still like our big, black men to be orderly and loyal, like Colin Powell, or quiet like Justice Thomas… or even a sweet, dumb, gentle giant like that character in The Long Green Mile.
But threatening? No, Obama can’t afford to come off as threatening, let alone contemptuous of an elderly white man like McCain. So as much as I’m with the brawling Irishmen on what I’d personally like to see from our candidate, I understand I’m not the typical swing voter, and nowhere near the mindset of an undecided independent. No, as much as it may pain me, Obama needs to show McCain respect, even when it is totally unreciprocated, if he is to win the hearts, minds and votes of the uncommitted.
He may not have stirred any passions in his base, but I’m guessing more voters than not came away from the debate with a greater sense of comfort in the notion of Obama as commander in chief, and that’s all he needed to achieve last night.
So I’ve scored this one for Obama. And now I’m going sit back and watch to see if my post-debate analysis is supported by the daily tracking polls.
John Cole at Balloon Juice aptly sums up the dilemma facing McCain over the emerging too contemptuous to make eye contact narrative:
SNL will probably drive the point home in a skit that will become the dominant narrative tonight, and McCain will become boxed in regarding his behavior in the second debate, much as Gore was unable to be as aggressive as he wanted in the second debate (I remember the running joke was that Gore had been medicated for the second debate). And if McCain does not tone down the contempt, it will simply feed the narrative. Or, if we are really lucky, as someone suggested in another thread, McCain will overcompensate and spend the entire time comically and creepily attempting to make eye contact with Obama (think Al Gore walking across the stage to stand next to Bush, and Bush looking at him as if to think “WTF are you doing?”).
This should be terrifying for the McCain campaign for two reasons. First, the base will not understand it. To them, a sneering, contemptuous jerk is a feature, not a bug. When they try to tone down McCain, it will turn off the diehards. Look at the reaction of the base to Palin’s RNC speech- they LOVED that she was, for all intents and purposes, nothing but an asshole the entire speech. They loved the “zingers” that were written for her. The rest of the country recoiled in horror, and Obama raised ten million the next 48 hours.
I feel like I’m in pretty good company when James Fallows posts a pretty similar analysis:
Obama would have pleased his base better if he had fought back more harshly in those 90 minutes — cutting McCain off, delivering a similarly harsh closing judgment, using comparably hostile body language, and in general acting more like a combative House of Commons debater. Those would have been effective tactics minute by minute.
But Obama either figured out, or instinctively understood, that the real battle was to make himself seem comfortable, reasonable, responsible, well-versed, and in all ways “safe” and non-outsiderish to the audience just making up its mind about him. (And yes, of course, his being a young black man challenging an older white man complicated everything he did and said, which is why his most wittily aggressive debate performance was against another black man, Alan Keyes, in his 2004 Senate race.) The evidence of the polls suggests that he achieved exactly this strategic goal. He was the more “likeable,” the more knowledgeable, the more temperate, etc. Update: though he doesn’t have to say “John is right…” ever again during this campaign.