Saturday, September 27, 2008

Obama Won the Debate By Showing Up Without Horns

After Friday night's presidential debate, I was initially very disappointed. "Well, we blew that one," I muttered, disgusted, much the way my Grandpa used to when the Cubs would give up a three-run homer in the top of the ninth.

I think my reaction was similar to Maureen Dowd's: why did Obama leave so much unsaid?

Why didn't Obama point out that McCain's campaign advisor's lobbying firm was still on the Freddie Mac Payroll until last month? Why didn't Obama get angry and fight back when McCain made those ridiculous allegations that Obama said he would just nance over to Iran to play footsie with Ahmadinejad?

When McCain bloviated for minutes and minutes about earmarks (to avoid having to talk about the economy), why didn't Obama remind McCain that his own running mate secured earmarks for Alaskans to study the mating habits of crabs? When McCain belittlingly scolded Obama that "the next president won't have to decide whether to go to war in Iraq," why in the world didn't Obama say, "No, Senator, but they might have to decide whether to bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran, and I don't think the American people can trust your judgment on that"?

Why, why why? Instead of doing what I thought he should do, Obama made his points firmly but respectfully, and then backed off to let McCain speak ad nauseum to "my friends" about Vietnam, being a maverick, earmarks, and any number of other things he loves to drone on about.

I was sure we had lost the debate, and that after two disastrous weeks for McCain, Obama had just allowed McCain to recapture the initiative.

Boy, was I mistaken!

Within minutes, the "insta-polls" showed that debate watchers preferred Obama's performance by a wide margin. (CNN. CBS.) So why had I been so wrong? Why had more voters found that my candidate Barack Obama did so much better than I thought he did?

As I thought about it, I came to three reasons. First, most Americans probably have better things to do with their time than to follow every single piece of election-related news from hour to hour each day. Thus, they don't know all the minor details; they just know the big picture. So while I was judging Sen. Obama on what he didn't say, most of America probably judged both candidates on what they did say, and they liked what Obama said better.

Second, McCain really lived up to his reputation for nastiness. Over and over again, he said things like, "My opponent just doesn't understand," "what Sen. Obama doesn't seem to understand," et cetera. He spoke about Obama's "naivete." In other words, it wasn't that he thought Obama was wrong, it's that he thought Obama was stupid, and that an argument with Obama was really beneath him.

Nobody likes to be talked to that way. A friend of mine recently began an argument with me by saying, "Let me see if I can break it down for you in a way you might comprehend." Of course, I tuned out everything after that, because that's not the way grown people speak to one another.

McCain partisans will be quick to point out that Obama's most enduring indictment of McCain from his Democratic Convention speech was, "It isn't that John McCain doesn't care. It's that he doesn't get it." The thing is, I think John McCain has demonstrated over the past two weeks that he absolutely doesn't get it when it comes to the economy and how it's affecting working families. So when Obama said it, it rang true.

When McCain said that Obama "doesn't understand," however, it directly conflicted with what people could see before their very eyes, which was that Sen. Obama certainly did get it. You might disagree with him about Iran, Pakistan, tax cuts, or whatever, but there's no mistaking that Obama knows what he's talking about. Thus, rather than really cutting Obama down, McCain undermined his own credibility by repeating over and over again something that was demonstrably false.

(With no disrespect towards fans of Sen. Clinton, I might make the comparison to the primary season. Clinton ran as the "invincible" candidate, the only Democrat who could win. Then she lost in Iowa to Obama, and her argument that nobody but her could win was out the window. It's the same now with McCain saying Obama "doesn't understand.")

Third, because each candidate needed something very different from the debate, Obama had an easier job. McCain's playing the role of the drunken abusive boyfriend who's begging to be taken back again, because, "I promise, things'll be different this time." Obama, meanwhile, is the new guy trying to convince us all that we really deserve better.

"Stella! I promise having a Republican president will be different this time!"

What do I mean? The economy stinks, and McCain doesn't get it. When he pulled his little stunt and promised to save the economy or else skip the debate, Obama called his bluff, and not only did McCain come to the debate without saving the economy, he made it worse. Palin is a joke -- a loveable joke, but a joke nonetheless.

The Afghanistan War is seven, the Iraq War is five and a half, the deficit is the largest in history, credit is freezing, unemployment is creeping, banks are failing, other countries are catching up, Russia is saber-rattling, Galveston is a rotting corpse, and Bush has cried wolf so many times that even his own caucus in the House of Representatives doesn't trust him. The American people are crying out for change, and in their minds, they are all screaming, "ENOUGH!"

They want to vote Democratic. They want to reject McCain, the last eight years, the turbulent 1960s culture wars and Vietnam turmoil, incompetence, mean-spiritedness, unnecessary wars and uncontrollable economic turbulence.

But they also want to know that the sky won't fall and their kids won't die and they won't burn in hell for voting for a black Democrat with a funny name. Exhausted with the status quo, they are waiting for permission from their anxieties, their consciences, and their dead ancestors to vote for a dramatically different kind of president. And every time Obama appears in public not burning a flag or performing an abortion on live television, they are given that permission, because they see he's really just a regular guy.

I grew up in a very conservative Republican household in very conservative downstate Illinois, so I was 11 years old before I ever met someone who admitted that he was a liberal. Mom had a new boss, and when she introduced him to me, she said, "Ron, this is my son Levi. He's never met a liberal before. He thinks you all have green horns and tails." Ron laughed pleasantly as he shook my hand, then he leaned forward and showed me the top of his head. "See? No horns. Pleased to meet you."

My hand didn't wither and drop off. I didn't turn to stone. Ron didn't kidnap me or curse God. All of a sudden, everything I'd ever heard about the evil baby-killing, atheistic, taxing-and-spending, military-cutting, sodomizing liberals rang false. Ron was just a normal American guy.

What Barack Obama needed to do last night wasn't to grit his teeth and fire again and again and again at John McCain like John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder. He didn't need to get too many zingers in on McCain, or talk jnoisily over McCain to make sure he was the loudest debater. All Obama needed to do Friday night was lean forward to show the American people that he has no horns.

Because he did that, he won.

**Post script: the Gallup poll seems to confirm what I've said here. On Sunday, September 28 -- the first day following the debate -- the three-day average for the national poll of registered voters moved three points, with McCain dropping two points to 42 and Obama gaining a point to rise to 50. Obama leads by eight points.

You can watch the entire debate here.

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