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September 29, 2008
People Were Watching This Time, and Saw the Real McCain
you’d only listened to, and not watched, about a 20-minute segment of
Friday night’s presidential debate, you’d have thought that John McCain
came across as not just having a lot more experience but also having the
temperament to be the president.
thin slice of time, which was perhaps McCain’s best opportunity to
revive his candidacy after a week of flops, came complete with the sound
of Richard Nixon, croaking with renewed life from 1960.
was that tight campaign season when the power of television was first
truly realized. Nixon and John F. Kennedy debated before an audience
that hadn’t quite fully switched from the radio to television. People
who listened to the debates thought Nixon won. People who watched saw
Nixon sweaty and shifty and looking every bit the used car salesman he
turned out to be.
so it went this year. McCain, while discussing the first two answers on
Iraq, sounded like the more experienced man, wizened by years of
involvement with national security. It was when you watched him that
things took on a different perspective.
was the statesmen. In its place, after you got past the tie that
appeared to be chosen for its ability to induce seizures in members of
the audience, was left a man with pasty white skin, and teeth yellowed
with age that turned each attempted condescending smile into a pained
grimace. He shrank in his suit, and recoiled from Barack Obama as if he
were the sun, McCain were the undead and the Democrat’s presence was
causing his skin to blister.
of this can be attributed to the apparent contempt with which McCain
held the proceedings. He refused to look Obama in the face, even as his
opponent fulfilled the moderator’s wishes that the two talk
face-to-face. During a question on economic policy, in fact, he told Jim
Lehrer that he could hear the answers just fine when Obama wasn’t
talking to him.
Perhaps some of this can also be attributed to McCain’s string of
campaign blunders, starting with allowing his grossly under-qualified
vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin to actually do interviews. In an
Internet microsecond, her rambling gaffes while answering Katie Couric’s
questions destroyed the ticket’s appeal to both women and the Republican
revolt had some of its roots in McCain’s serious gaffe about the
chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission. McCain called for
accountability, saying that commission chairman Christopher Cox should
go. Little did McCain know that Cox is a good friend of conservative
columnist George Will, who promptly spent two weeks assailing McCain’s
the time the Palin interview had erased the GOP’s momentum coming out of
the party convention, the financial markets declined rapidly – just days
after McCain had called the foundations of the nation’s economy sound.
Then, with polling data showing disastrous results for McCain-Palin,
McCain suspended his campaign (mostly by canceling an appearance on the
David Letterman show) and eventually wandered down to Washington D.C.
just in time to torpedo a bipartisan bailout package for Wall Street.
debate was never going to be a game changer; a complete shift in
momentum. At best, it offered McCain a chance to put together a credible
drive and kick a field goal to let people know that he was going to be
in the game until the end. The pundit class, wrong on everything so far
this year, thought he’d done just that.
Unfortunately for McCain, while politics and football have much in
common, what they don’t share is a method for determining who wins. In
this case, the people whose opinions mattered most were undecided, swing
voters. According to post-debate polls and focus groups, McCain’s chief
problem is that many of them watched the entire thing, rather than just
catching a portion of it on their radios.
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