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PopBlogging the Debate


It may seem a bit implausible that anyone would be reading PM (let alone this blog) while the presidential debate is going on, but on the off-chance that there is someone out there doing same, I thought I'd give a shot at live-blogging the debate. It sort of fits the Peripatetic Postcard theme, as I am on the other side of the world at the moment that Barack Obama and John McCain are squaring off. Tuning in thanks to the Internet -- on MySpace. This is how we peripatetics get our political fixes.

Keeping with the PM theme, while this is a political event, I will try to keep it all focused on the popular cultural dimensions (as if I can ever keep the politics out of my life...)

Well, just started so here we go...

McCain seems tight since he needs what he calls a "game changer" -- although working on expectations, yesterday he tried to sell the idea that this debate probably won't change the game.

Obama talking to the camera -- important to get into those living rooms. JM doesn't seem aware of the camera. He is looking at BO and Bob Schieffer.

One more thing to note about McCain is that because of his animus toward BO, when he looks at him to speak, his ire increases. This is where the political intersects the psychological and truly matters to the people whose job it is to communicate with the voter (rather than their automous nervous system).

What is up with these guys clothes? McCain's tie is so bland it fads into that drab coat. BO has a good tie (and a flag lapel pin -- again!), but his coat is also rather subdued. Schieffer's ensemble is even worse (although more coordinated than JM's). These guys have consultants that talk to them about this coordination stuff -- but they all seem to have been asleep at the wheel here. I can't see these colors as sending messages of anything other than "safe" and "I am one of YOU -- I can't pick out clothes well either!" come to think of it . . . maybe these consultants were doing their work!

JM is taking that "hatchet and scalpel" line that BO used in the last two debates (to devastating effect). Trying to make up points he lost in the last one. You are never going to win in life when you are continually one step slow. Anyway, set phrases matter -- and that is why debate prep is so important . . . you have to have your sound bites down to get them repeated on the news for the next 24. Now JM came up with one "Senator Obama, I am not George Bush. If you wanted to run against George Bush, then you should have run 4 years ago." That is a strong, effective line. Now he has another one: "Senator Obama, you would have to tell me one example of reform that you supported..."

He has Obama on the defensive and is scoring well here with pre-planned rhetoric.

"I've got the scars to prove it" -- how we communicate one thing, using another. Politics is all about sign-talk, about martialing the symbols and JM, the former POW, is getting people to think about this -- about how much he has suffered and how tough he is. My only issue with this is that JM tends to overplay the victimization card. I think you do that too much and people just see you as a crybaby.

Schieffer is into the question that should get them into the slurs and the "terrorist" conversation. Let's see where this goes -- could be interesting.

McCain is trying to score (again!) with the victim card -- saying that BO hasn't defended him against Lewis's slurs. And now McCain is into a laundry list of complaints about BO's behavior -- whining about his opponent, trying to get the sympathy vote. (More crybaby stuff -- I don't think that is considered seemly for a "man" and a former navy flight jock).

BO turns it around -- making JM look like he is a baby ("the American people don't care about our hurt feelings." It's that barney Frank line from 3 weeks ago and it turns the traditional Repub-Demo roles on their heads). BO goes on to speak directly to the people -- telling them what they OUGHT to be thinking about. (i.e. there are bigger issues than this trivial shit that "the people" care about).

Wow -- here we go. BO even says to McCain that Palin supporters said "terrorist" and "kill him". He looks at JM when he says that. BO speaks directly to the elephant in the room. Sympathy squared. And then BO takes the high road. And says: "let's get to the issues." So he trumps JM on this issue.

Many analysts have talked how McCain is often weak on the issues that he attacks BO on -- that was an analysis on the Rachel Maddow show last night. It is a Karl Rove technique but it can blow up (hey, a terrorist metaphor!) in your face.

And as BO closes, he really puts this matter to rest once and for all. I can't see that this did anythng but give BO a forum to score points -- what a foolish direction to have taken this debate (by McCain). "This says more about your campaign John McCain than it does me." -- game, set . . . match?

Ooh -- a toughie. Schieffer really putting JM on the spot because he has to defend his choice of Sarah Palin. This is (or should be) a can of corn for BO since all he has to do is justify picking Joe Biden. But watch McCain squirm in defending his decision. This is the kind of moment that can win or lose votes (as opposed to many other questions that candidates can wriggle around and slip away from).

McCain sells Palin as a reformer, a tough cookie, and a "breath of fresh air". Although why we should vote for him because he has been around the joint (for 26 years) that Palin is supposed to help clean up defies logic! Anyway, he again plays the victim/suffering card, because he says "she understands special needs" (although he refers to her baby as having "autism" later in the debate -- not Down Syndrome).

Now, let's see if BO is willing to go after Palin. No, he punted when asked point blank by Schieffer. I guess he sees no point in going negative when he is ahead on character. That is how shrewd this guy is. he had a chance to take the shot, but he sees that the other guy is going to hit the mat, so why risk the public derision that might come with an gratuitous coup de grace? But he did try to turn the special needs against McCain by attacking the across the board cuts that JM is advocating. Solid debate technique putting JM on the defensive.

(Who said that BO is not a good debater?)

Interesting that JM chose to go negative on Biden, while BO refused to go after Palin. Character again. All these little details do tally over time.

Losing that opportunity, JM went on the attack about spending. And he paints BO with that word ("spending") -- which we all know from our political history is code for "liberal". In recent times this has always been an epithet used to harm candidates all the way back to McGovern. Carter, Dukakis and Kerry all got diced for this.

McCain may have scored there.

On oil BO has decided to speak to the camera again. He is getting dinged up by JM attacks, but he is trying to connect with "the people". BO is winning this election because he has overcome the "comfort threshold". People see him as someone who can talk to them without raising their blood pressure. There is the McLuhan Hot/Cool dynamic going on here (don't ask me to try to defend Mystic Marshall's definitions which, to me at least, are, in his Understanding Media, inconsistent and all over the map) -- but we have a Kennedy/Nixon dynamic going on with BO and JM... it is how they soothe or else jar the voter who is, respectively, engaged or repelled by the talking heads on their screens.

JM recognizes this by saying "I admire Senator's Obama's eloquence" -- code for "he is a slick snake oil salesman". he later repeats this line, but -- is it just me -- it all comes out as argumentative and disrespectful. My friends over at 538.com are emphasizing the "tongue jut" which commmunication researchers associate with liars or else people who believe that they have gotten away with a statement that they know is unfair. JM tongue juts often.

As other analysts have been pointing out, JM's attacks in these debates tend not to take hold. The reason is that he often says: "Obama doesn't understand" and then BO goes on to show that he DOES understand. He shows that understanding by going on to recite data or specifics that demonstrate familiarity with the issue, thereby undercutting JM's claim.

As an aside, let me say that BO is going to be one of the smartest presidents the US has had in office -- ever. (Of course, smarts was a garrot wound around the neck of Jimmy Carter). Raising the question: "how smart do we want our president to be? How intelligent should a president to be?" After W, one has to say: "smarter than that (one)!"

You have to humanize the message -- Ronald Reagan was the KING of that technique. BO had his opportunity -- and he got 2/3 the way there -- but he fell short because he couldn't recite the names of the 2 women he shook hands with in Toledo yesterday. It was just yesterday, Barack! You've got to cross the "t", my man. Reagan definitely would have.

See, JM went back to "Joe the plumber" to talk competing health care plans. that is his attempt to do the human thing. Someone on another blog posted the fact that plumbers average 45 thou a year, so this particular "Joe the plumber" --- who wants to start a 250K business is not your average plumber.

Anyway, JM is back in attack mode. Saying: "Obama is going to fine you". This is another one of those "bombs in the face" -- so here we go.

BO has the moment and takes advantage of it. Must be rehearsed because it is definitely going to get into the news cycle. That gesture "0" with his thumb and pointer finger was well done, vamping for the camera. BO gives it a vaudvillian leer: "Here's your fine, Joe: ZERO." Looks in the camera to connect on that one, too.

Now, here is where BO is sensational -- he has that ability to connect and make you feel unthreatened (sorry for the latent racism implied--but there it is), while also joking in a way that makes you feel like you are sitting at the picnic with another "average Joe", and yet: he can explain the details of a code or the provisions of a bill. He has the entire package in a way that Bush II doesn't and even Ronald Reagan didn't.

I know that Americans like to believe that they are free agents, but do people really WANT to go out and (be forced to) search for their own health insurance provider? How can many of those supposed free agents out there find the time and energy with everything else going on in their lives to find the right provider? Isn't it in fact a scary proposition -- one more rigamarole to have to endure: navigating this overly-bureaucratized world. I wouldn't want to have to do it (ironically -- if I had a choice). I am intrigued that BO isn't willing to say this about JM's plan (too risky I suppose since he could be assailed for calling Americans "sheep" -- no matter how true it might be for the majority).

A quick shout-out to Bob Schieffer. I really enjoy Jim Leher and he tried hard to get the 2 candidates to talk to one another, but Schieffer's questions have been spot on and succeeded in forcing the candidates to acknowledge one another, engage in give and take, and additionally, talk beyond their comfort zones a few times.

JM has really been on the attack. He has to, of course, but this is a case where rhetoric and tactics may serve a longer-term strategy. This is the goal, of course, looking out three weeks. The aim is not for a one-night "game changer" but to let your words and style work like the ocean on a beach -- erosion. I don't think that JM has the temperament for the long term chip away approach, but we'll see. He tends to get too crotchety too quickly (reinforcing his "grumpy old coot" image).

More atmospherics (and following up on that crotchety line above), the seating configuration has probably been beneficial for JM because it has restrained him from roaming the room. Also standing (one presumes) tends to make him tired which leads him to (demonstrably) become more demonstrable (i.e. fiesty). This has been more of a conversation rather than a debate for that reason.

Democratic candidates have learned over the years (it's only taken 3 decades!) how to code speak -- about responsibility, for one, and helping the middle class, for another. This education topic is one example where Obama scores, sounding (occasionally) like a Richard Nixon or a Gerald Ford.

Another good joke by BO: "unfortunately, they left the money behind in 'no child left behind'." Note that BO tends to be cynical only when referencing the Bush administration. He rarely turns that rapier wit at JM (which is not the case in reverse) -- and another reason why people can accept him.

Now, BO gets aggressive against JM by saying "prioritize" (code for the policy idea/approach that JM doggedly refused to accept in the last debate) and also saying "I don't think our youth is an interest group -- I think they are our future." A very strong line because it shows vision and a forward-looking sensibility (as well as speaking to an interest group!). It contrasts with the McCain campaign (in that anecdote), by showing that JM only looks at the "group" that is our future in terms of one of contending interests -- and one which we can neglect. Anyone listening carefully scored that one H - U - G - E for BO.

Closing now: JM would not say BO's name as he thanked him (and, while looking in his direction, actually didn't look at him). Not sure that anyone will make anything of that -- after the previous 2 debates that included big-time JM disses of BO, this was relatively minor. (Note that BO is careful to say JM's name at his close).

Now in concluding a third debate, the challenge is how to say something that is striking AND new. JM starts with his record and proposals, then he goes into country service and putting country first. Appealing to be the public's servant (and also trying to sound consistent with the overarching theme of his campaign -- as if to say: "we planned it all this way!" -- rather than the general impression which has emerged that their tack has been scattershod and disorganized).

BO is into the "(can we support) the same failed policies and same failed politics and expect a different result?" In other words a variation on the Reagan killer line about "are you better off than 4 years ago?" but going even farther by saying "are you going to make the same bad decision a third time in a row?" This is a devastating appeal -- very effective, I think. BO is also sure to connect with voters directly by using the words "middle class" and then turning forward (a Palin suggestion!) and talking about the future. In coming to a close, he talks about being a unifier (McCain's line!) and then returning to a theme that scored huge points in an earlier debate (stick with what works!): sacrifice. this is invocation of one of our contemporary presidential Gods: JFK.

A perfect close.

JM very effusive in the handshake and making sure to look at BO -- so that will scotch any of that silly talk that has dinged him in the post-debate analyses. He also is sure to shake BO's hand again once the wives are on-stage (not leaving the dirty work to Cindy this time!).

I guess we can leave the rest of the spin up to everyone else on other blogs and networks.

Well, unfortunately this blog didn't get posted in real time, so there was no way to evoke reader reaction (I mean, in case any PM readers were doing the same two things as me: reading PopMatters while watching the debate). At some point maybe word will get out that this is a corner to come for top-flight (if only occasional) political analysis!

Until then -- well, there is still space and time for your reactions to what was written here -- just fill out the comment box when you have a chance.

And, as Bob Schieffer said in the close: "go out and vote on November 4th!" (. . . but only if you are an American citizen -- we wouldn't want any more complaints and allegations of voter fraud than we already have!)

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