Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Obama-McCain II:That one

Ain’t it always the way? Some revelations you only get after their precipitating events have already happened. That occurred on Tuesday night. Maybe the most telling moment of the second presidential debate took place when the second presidential debate was over.

It was pretty much impossible to see it on the cable networks, which reflexively cut back to the analysts and Learned Ones those networks are employing for the rest of the campaign. MSNBC, CNN, the broadcast nets sprinted back to the studios to tell us What It All Means.

Thank C-SPAN for showing us what it all means. The C-SPAN feed from the Mike Curb Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville lingered in the hall for many minutes after it was over, observing the interactions of Sen. John McCain and Barack Obama, the ways they played with the crowd. For a while, anyway.

It was, generously, ten minutes after the debate ended when it was clear something had happened with who was hogging the camera. The ‘Vox wasn’t there and neither were you, but we could sense by the imbalance of who the camera focused on, that someone was conspicuous by his absence. The Maverick® had left the building. McCain and entourage had vanished, and done so quickly. It was a disappearing act that, in the context of the debate he’d just handsomely lost, was more than just bad campaign “optics.” It further conveyed the sense of invisibility Team McCain has gravitated toward in these final days of the election campaign.

Obama was another matter entirely.

Slate’s John Dickerson, who was there, caught the mood perfectly:

“[W]ith McCain out of the room, the affection from swing voters increased. He was mobbed, patted, beamed at, embraced. One woman wriggled up next to him. At one point, about 15 voters posed for a group picture like it was the last day of camp.”

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We won’t weigh this down with a full-on transcript of the debate last night. Suffice to say that for ninety minutes we — 63.2 million people in the United States and millions more around the world — saw exactly why this race is where it is. In the freewheeling town-hall format McCain has claimed is his strength, McCain met his match in Obama, a challenger who seemed to look more presidential as the event wore on.

Fielding questions on energy independence, national security, the nation’s two foreign wars and the economy — the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room — the Democrat warmed to the format, breaking through what actors call “the fourth wall” between them and the audience. Obama made it personal again, with strong eye eontact, a folksy demeanor and measured responses to his angry opponent.

Not that he didn’t revert to type. When Citizen Katie Hamm lofts a softball to Obama about Pakistan, Barry got to wax sage and professorial, offering his long-standing, and increasingly accepted — rationale for that country and Afghanistan as the real nexus of the war on terrorism. And fielding other questions, Obama elicited a self-possession and confidence that was reflected in the faces around the room.

Contrary to the barroom brawlers in the punditburo who have called for Obama to engage McCain directly in the same mud wrestling McCain prefers, Obama showed the intelligent cool he's brandished all year. For many in the audience, Obama's bearing at the debate — part of the fundamental sang-froid he's exhibited on the campaign trail for many months — would be the same character trait he could be counted on to show as president. "A calm hand at the controls," some facial expressions seemed to say. "Isn't that what we want?"

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain again equated his own personal strength and character in the crucible of imprisonment in the Vietnam War with the strength and character required to run a wounded, battered nation, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

He rightly wants to stand up for Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and for warning Moscow from further renewal of its historically brutal expansionism. At one moment there was real fellow feeling for a member of the audience, former Chief Petty Officer Terry Shirey, a fellow Navy man. And the crowd seemed to respond with a quiet warmth. So what if McCain didn’t wear a flag-lapel pin for the second debate in a row? This was the cold warrior in twilight, recognizing another once-comrade in arms.

But this was the exception. For a man who supposedly loves the town-hall format, McCain was not on his A game. He launched into fulsome praise for “my hero, Teddy Roosevelt,” instantly mangling one of TR’s signature phrases (“Walk softly — talk softly, but carry a big stick”). (This is how you treat your hero?) Then he trotted out that tired line about looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing the letters K, G and B. And again he floated that idea of forming a “League of Democracies” to oversee various regional instabilities — a body that, as generally described, wouldn’t be any different from the United Nations Security Council we’ve had for 50 years.

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Consider the unspoken things, what happened between exchanges with the candidates. While McCain spoke, Obama often sat watching his opponent, unafraid of eye contact, visually staying in the game, his body open and accessible.

When Obama spoke, McCain appeared restless, either sitting and taking notes, sipping water, or standing, sometimes with the body language of an impatient man.

Throughout the evening the audience got the John McCain Rage Show, co-starring condescension, irritation and barely sublimated rage. It was there in a thoroughly condescending manner when McCain addressed a question from Oliver Clark about the mortgage crisis.

“But you know, one of the real catalysts, really the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," McCain told Clark. "I'll bet you, you may never even have heard of them before this crisis.”

And that anger was there when McCain committed the gaffe of the debate season thus far, committing to political folklore a phrase that will adhere to McCain — not like glory but more like manure — forever.

Attacking Obama on a vote on an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, McCain, suddenly physically animated, said the bill in question was “loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney."

Then he said (with a cringe-inducing sarcasm more physical than rhetorical) “You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me.”

There was more rhetorical counterpunch, more thrust and parry: McCain's idea of a $5,000 refundable tax credit for health care that Obama dismantled as a plan to tax company health-care benefits, a zero-sum-game proposal in which one hand of government giveth and the other hand of government taketh away. Or McCain's GOP-ritual blame of minority homeowners for the gravity of the mortgage crisis. Or McCain's trial balloon stunt of proposing that the Federal government take possession of $300 billion in bad mortgages — a bailout on top of the bailout!

But two words put the icing on a cake in the rain. With two words — that one — John McCain revealed the gravity of his dislocation, the degree of his disconnect not just from the candidate who opposes him, but also from the country he proposes to lead. Some in the audience in the hall were visibly tuning out, mentally heading for the exits, already plotting how to get into a post-debate photograph with that one.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain has over the years effectively crafted a political persona combining the instincts of a nonconformist with the principles of a reform-minded politician. Some of those principles that he stood on and for have apparently disappeared.

More recently, throughout the long and revelatory months of this campaign, John McCain model 2008 has advanced his political star by equating a personal and military valor we’ve never doubted for a moment with the temperament, judgment, vision and character it takes to be president of the United States. The shortcomings in that comparison were obvious on Tuesday night.

The people at the Mike Curb Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville didn’t have any doubt, any more than the millions more around the country — many of whom have already voted. If the hordes that crowded Obama after the debate are a sign, they know who they want for president.

That one.
Image credit: Obama, Oct. 3, 2008: Stan Honda/AFP.

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