Obama v McCain: a battle to Not Lose

Despite the hype, round one of the televised presidential debates lacked vision or even a verbal punch-up.

John Browne

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Friday’s US presidential debate between Republican candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama was much anticipated. As the two opponents prepared to go head-to-head on live TV, there were widespread predictions that this would be the most-watched presidential debate ever.

As it happens, the debate’s TV ratings didn’t even match those of the first presidential debate between George W Bush and John Kerry in 2004. It appears that the viewing public is far more discerning than it is often given credit for. Despite the intense interest in this year’s election, Friday’s debate was unmemorable, with neither candidate rising above the mediocre or attempting to put forward a political strategy or theme that could define their respective campaigns. Instead, we simply saw the caricatures that have been built up around both personalities writ large. McCain was patronising, Obama aloof.

The belief that Friday’s debate would mark the real start of the presidential race was badly misplaced. This despite the fact that the stakes were ratcheted up significantly when McCain put his campaign on hold two days before the debate and threatened to withdraw from it altogether in order to concentrate on solving the current financial crisis.

Unfortunately, the on-off-on theme that characterised the run-up to the debate continued during the event itself. Both candidates needed to reinvigorate their efforts, but the debate failed to inject any vim into the campaign. A bore draw would be the most charitable description of what happened. McCain and Obama appeared as two petulant sparring partners more intent on not losing than on winning. The candidates stuttered their way through 90 minutes of often inane and always inconsequential discussion. The Washington Post‘s description of the event as a ‘squabble’ was perhaps the most apposite.

The debate was supposed to concentrate on foreign policy, but the first half was, understandably, turned over to the economic crisis. One would have hoped that the candidates had prepared something more than a few talking points, if not actual policies, to present to the nation. However, neither had anything interesting, let alone meaningful, to say. If nothing else, it became apparent that the real crisis in American politics is a crisis of political leadership.

Debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the broadcaster and Texan Republican who has moderated 10 presidential debates in the past five elections, failed to encourage any actual debating. He seemed to be content with simply letting the candidates bicker. He never corrected or challenged statements by either candidate, preferring to let them meander their way through discussions on the economy, followed by a whistle-stop tour of the world’s hotspots as seen from Washington: Iraq, Iran, Korea, Russia, Pakistan and so on.

There were several mischaracterisations that Lehrer could have picked up on, most notably perhaps when McCain claimed that special appropriation ‘earmarks’ have ‘tripled in the past five years’, when in fact they have decreased sharply. Obama, on his part, greatly overstated the current Iraqi budget surplus. But Lehrer had either not done his homework or simply wasn’t up to the job.

No memorable verbal punches were thrown during the debate. At the very least, Obama could have paraphrased the infamous ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’ exchange between Dennis Healey and Geoffrey Howe, or even the ‘you’re no Jack Kennedy’ line that Lloyd Bentsen threw derisively at Dan Quayle in a 1988 vice-presidential debate. But Jim Lehrer was today’s dead sheep and Kennedy’s ghost was only apparent in an obviously contrived McCain shot early on, when, in a cheap attempt to show bipartisanship, he asked us to pray for Senator Ted Kennedy who had been taken to hospital for a check-up.

However, it would be wrong to blame the format or the chairman alone for the lack of real debate. The reality is that neither side had any intention of challenging each other, or even themselves. The candidates had set their horizons so low that they had no reason to emerge from the cocoons they had woven around themselves. Obama wanted a draw; McCain wanted not to screw up too badly. And they both got what they wished for.

Obama had deliberately set the bar low in the run-up to the debate, as it was meant to focus on foreign policy, which McCain likes to see as his forte. According to the Obama campaign, a draw would actually be an advantage, as long as Obama looked the part (which he did) and made no significant gaffes (which he didn’t). Mission accomplished.

Obama did appear far too deferential. While trying to tie McCain to the Bush administration, he also mentioned several times that he agreed with his opponent, but he gained nothing in return. McCain went to the other extreme, petulantly refusing even to throw his opponent a glance. He referred to him, when he deigned to, as ‘Senator Obama’. That fitted in well with his condescending tone throughout, suggesting several times that Obama simply didn’t understand the complexities of the world in which we live. However, Obama has finally got the message that you don’t debate down the ticket, and he made no references to Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

McCain’s desire not to screw up too badly had taken on bizarre proportions before the debate. While decrying any attempts to make political capital out of the economic crisis, he did just that. McCain suspended his campaign two days before the debate, so that he could go to Washington to deal with the financial crisis, stating that he would not attend any debates until it had been resolved.

This stunt was generally poorly received, even among Republicans. Mike Huckabee, one of McCain’s opponents for the Republican nomination, reportedly said that McCain had made a ‘huge mistake’ by even suggesting that he might not turn up. ‘You can’t just say, “World stop for a moment. I’m going to cancel everything’, Huckabee said.

Just a few hours before the debate was set to start, McCain changed his mind and decided to show up, even though no financial rescue plan had been set out in Washington. According to most reports in Washington (those that didn’t come out of the McCain camp, it must be said), he didn’t make any meaningful contribution in DC. In fact, he sat in silence in the negotiating rooms and refused to take sides in any debates. McCain’s refusal to ‘play politics’ with the economic crisis only shows the extent to which important economic matters have been depoliticised and removed from serious political debate.

Perhaps Obama’s not-so-mature comment, that a future president ‘should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time’, influenced McCain’s late decision to turn up. But McCain inadvertently showed how bereft his campaign is of new ideas when, during the debate, he made a bizarre reference to Irish tax laws as a model for the United States.

The reaction to the debate was justifiably muted. McCain, as a commentator in the New York Times noted, sought to paint himself as a revolutionary, ‘but his is the Reagan revolution, and for a lot of people right now, it doesn’t look like morning in America’.

Sarah Palin’s appointment as McCain’s running mate has gone some way towards making up for his own failure to energise his support base and it now looks like ‘the real show’ will occur when she squares up against Joe Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, on Thursday night.

Palin’s lustre is certainly rubbing off, as her third TV interview again showed how little experience she has. Yet another senior conservative voice came out against her last week. Writing in the National Review, Kathleen Parker, who was initially very much in favour of Palin, joined a long list of those suggesting that the honeymoon was over and divorce proceedings were in order. She wrote: ‘As we’ve seen and heard more from John McCain’s running mate, it is increasingly clear that Palin is a problem. Quick study or not, she doesn’t know enough about economics and foreign policy to make Americans comfortable with a President Palin should conditions warrant her promotion… It was fun while it lasted. Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League.’

But Biden could just as easily demonstrate a complete inability to lead. And, given the absence of any meaningful political agenda, the bloodsport among the cynics is just to see who makes the apolitical step that loses the White House.

John Browne is a writer based in Washington, DC.

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