Just as a hurricane threatened to halt the RNC a month ago, the drama surrounding the U.S. financial crisis, precipitated by the failure of AIG and Merrill Lynch, looked like it was going to prevent the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama from occurring Friday night.
In The Candidate (1972), Bill McKay (Robert Redford), a left-wing lawyer, agrees to run a hopeless Senate campaign in California against strong Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). Early on in the contest, both candidates race to the scene of a wildfire to capitalize on the PR value of consoling property damage victims on camera. However, Jarmon's take-charge persona totally overshadows McKay and relegates him to weak, second-banana status.
I think that's what McCain tried to do with his gimmicky pledge to freeze all campaign operations until a bailout bill was passed. The elder senator would race to Washington and spearhead some sort of solution to the current financial crisis, leaving Obama the Hobson's choice of impotently tagging along or staying in Mississippi to debate with himself.
It's clear to me why the McCain team did it. A perception that McCain ads dishonestly sling mud, Sarah Palin's poor performance during the Katie Couric interview, and the senator's contradictory statements about the "fundamental soundness" of the economy while calling for the head of SEC chairman Christopher Cox had all taken their toll on his campaign. When you're in a hole, quit digging. So this "time-out," in my opinion, was designed to stop the bleeding and change the subject.
Not to be outdone in playing politics, after what was reportedly a heated debate at the White House, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barney Frank claimed that instead of helping the process, McCain actually derailed an already agreed upon bailout package.
I'd counter that the zeal of President Bush and Congress to hurriedly pass the $700 billion package is eerily similar to the haste with which now-defaulting mortgage holders signed on for seemingly attractive sub-prime loans before reading the fine print. Also, if the supposed bailout package is so great, then the Democrat-controlled Congress and an equally supportive president should be able to pass whatever they want without ONE Republican vote.
I'd submit that the real reason nothing happened on Friday is because lawmakers sensed that voters aren't fully onboard the bailout bandwagon. As reported by David Goldman in CNNMoney, "Americans think the cost of the $700 billion plan being debated in Congress is too high. Though 55% said they favor the proposed bailout, 65% said it would probably treat taxpayers unfairly."
With no deal in sight and his bluff called, McCain changed course one more time and decided to show up at Ole Miss. It was like that Seinfeld episode where Costanza angrily announces that he's quitting his job only to report for work the next day pretending that it was all a joke (heh, heh).
Stating that he was opposed to Friday's debate before he was for it (or is that the other way around?) made McCain seem a bit erratic. Dare I say, ahem, crazy?
Yet in a weird, counter-intuitive, "New Coke" kind of way, McCain's goofy last minute decision might have actually helped rather then hurt him on Friday. Since this was the "foreign policy" debate—McCain's wheelhouse—expectations for him to mop the floor with his opponent were high. Anything short of a bloodbath could have been perceived as a "win" for Obama. So McCain's behavior before the event may have effectively lowered the bar for HIM.
Let me say, first off: as political theater, I really enjoyed the debate. Many talking heads are lamenting the fact that it lacked any "catch phrases" or "memorable moments." I'm frankly tired of hearing about Reagan's "there he goes again" or Bentsen's "you're no Jack Kennedy" lines. Political debates have become glorified press conferences where the participants have a very narrow window of opportunity to score some sound bite points and get out. These small moments may appeal to our Thunderdome mentality, but I'm not so sure are very instructive. Though neither McCain nor Obama gave a perfect performance, it was one of the most interesting presidential debates I've seen in years. Who won? That's a tough one. I'm inclined to give it to McCain. But that's probably because, as a supporter, I'm philosophically more in line with him.
When judging these sorts of events, the marketing major in me constantly thinks back to the "Components of Attitudes" model, which describes how an "attitude" actually consists of three basic elements: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. A cognitive element is a fact or piece of information that one knows or believes to be true about a given subject. The affective component is how an individual viscerally responds to that subject. And the behavioral piece is what someone actually does about it. If all three of these elements are not in harmony, an internal discomfort, referred to as "cognitive dissonance," occurs. Individuals, knowingly or not, seek to avoid dissonance and attain harmony. Thus, for example, if someone reads statistics that purportedly show the death penalty being unfairly applied, then that person will most likely feel bad AND vote against proposals to expand the practice.
Of course, emotions can attach to a topic before any facts are known. I HATE Michael Moore. Therefore, I'd be inclined to disbelieve him if he claimed the sun rose in the east and set in the west. And behavior may be the driving factor. People who have voted Democrat or Republican their entire life generally end up liking the candidate their party nominates. If that candidate holds a position on an issue they disagree with (say illegal immigration, NAFTA, or abortion), it's mentally discounted for the sake of internal harmony.
As a result, I usually take most of the post-debate polls with a grain of salt. They nearly always fall along party lines that, while perhaps accurately reflecting people's honestly held opinions, still have to be considered in light of the CoA model. With this in mind, here's a quick summary of my reaction to different aspects of the debate.
Style and Aesthetics
In terms of style, I have to give it to Obama. Despite starting off a bit stiffly, his mannerisms were relaxed and he seemed more polished. McCain never looks comfortable in his own skin. Between questions, he fidgeted with his notes, blinked constantly, and wore curiously random expressions. Temperamentally, Obama was the "friendlier" of the two. McCain adopted a more confrontational demeanor and often questioned Obama's credentials (just as Biden and Clinton had during the primary debates).
Visually, Obama's solid red tie, white shirt, and dark suit worked better than the striped red tie and light blue shirt that McCain's people had curiously outfitted him in.
Financial Recovery, National Security, and Free Form
Lehrer started things off by square pegging an economic question into the round foreign policy template of the debate based on President Eisenhower's observation that "the foundation of military strength is economic strength." Surprisingly, Obama didn't take McCain to task for impeding the progress of the financial recovery plan as the Democratic leaders had done earlier that day. True or not, this would have served to remind people about McCain's vacillating behavior. Also, Obama is sometimes a little too intellectual for his own good with unintentional laugh lines like "uh, seven hundred billion dollars is, uh, potentially a lot of money" (that's a direct quote).
The debate format allocated "free form" time where the participants could spontaneously engage each other. However, both men seemed reluctant to do so. Lehrer implored Obama and McCain to address each other directly as if they were two shy boys standing in the corner at a junior high school dance.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said during a heated argument that "You're entitled to your own opinions—but you're not entitled to your own facts."
Here's where one has to ask whose facts are right. Numbers were tossed back and forth freely. The U.S. has a business tax of thirty-five percent, while Ireland's is only eleven percent. But wait, don't U.S. businesses have all kinds of loopholes. Is $250,000 a year rich if you're a private business owner? Did Henry Kissinger really say that an American president should meet with Ahmadinejad without preconditions? McCain and Obama both presented nuanced versions of their own respective truths.
Right, But What Would You Cut?
Both men were asked to list what they would give up to accommodate the cost of the impending 700 billion dollar bailout package. I got a chuckle out of the fact that, even though Lehrer gave him a few tries, Obama presented a spending wish list instead of outlining what he would cut. Ever the Republican, McCain was able to actually list things he'd cut, and carefully pointed out a number of times that he'd protect veterans. McCain meandered off topic to talk about nuclear reactors. To which Obama responded by drifting into the equally radioactive topic of health care reform.
The Lessons of Iraq
This was where I thought McCain was really at his strongest. I know, Obama was always against the decision to launch military operations in Iraq. And once Bush made that decision, his administration botched its implementation. Trust me, MOST of the Republicans I talk to are just as disgusted with that fact as anyone else. However, harping about how wrongly it was handled in 2003 doesn't change the realities of 2008. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Blanche gripes to her sister that she wouldn't be able to treat her so awfully if she wasn't confined to a wheelchair. To which Jane replies, "But you ARE, Blanche! You ARE in that chair!"
While Obama's gotten a lot of traction (and arguably the nomination) out of always being opposed to the war, for me he's never clearly delineated a vision for Iraq that's much different from McCain's. Or, to put it another way, Obama has never substantively answered the question that Redford's McKay, after winning an upset victory over Jarmon, posed at the end of The Candidate: "What do we do now?"
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.