The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Hand at the Tiller

John McCain lost last night’s Presidential debate in Nashville. It was not due to lack of trying or failure to execute; he did a good job presenting himself in many ways. The problem for McCain is that too much in this election is beyond his control. The current financial crisis in the credit markets as well as the larger economic downturn are the most obvious examples. However, as regards the debate, Barack Obama keeps taking the matter out of McCain’s hands by failing to gaffe or otherwise implode.

Every time the two appear on stage together and Obama holds his own against McCain, it undercuts the Republican line of attack that Obama is not yet ready to be President. What is more, any presentation of the two side-by-side reinforces the Democratic talking point of Obama as the future and McCain as the past.

One reason not contributing to McCain’s loss, in my opinion, was his decision to forego personal attacks on Obama’s character during the debate, as some argued he should. I am not sure why he did so – whether it was a calculated decision to avoid appearing too negative or a principled decision to avoid such campaigning, at least for his own part.

Regardless, it was the right decision. Smears just do not work in a town hall setting or any setting that has the object of your smear campaign sitting next to you. This makes it too easy for your opponent to fight back and counter your claims. The ideal political smear is one your opponent never gets a chance to directly address. To that end, smears are best begun in partisan crowds and allowed to work their way through the Internet and other grapevines, ultimately entering the voting booth as unspoken thoughts in the minds of voters.

Instead, McCain choose to try to attack Obama more aggressively based on facts and policy points. However, he did so by recycling talking points from the last debate and the campaign in general, giving them less impact. What is more, Obama was in the room for these attacks and was able to answer and/or contradict a number of them.

The Republican elephant in the room for McCain in any of these exchanges is President Bush. McCain tried, once again, to distance himself from Bush but I do not think Independent voters are buying it. Never mind similarities in policies, there is something in McCain’ very manner of debate and his approach to his opponent that is reminiscent of Bush.

Consider these McCain quotes from last night.

On his superiority at fighting terrorism:

I understand what it means to the Commander-In-Chief . . . I fully understand the threat.

On dealing with our allies:

I know how these people think. I meet with them all the time.

On the premise that Afghanistan and not Iraq is the central front on terrorism:

This war is a long, long war and it requires steadfast determination and it requires a complete understanding that we not only chase down Al Qaida but we disrupt terrorist safe havens as well as people who could provide the terrorists with support . . . it's a fundamental misunderstanding to say that the war on terror is only Osama bin Laden.

On Obama crossing the Pakistani border to take out Osama bin Laden:

He just doesn't understand how the borders work, evidently, to say that. That is an outrageous claim . . . That shows a lack of understanding.

On his ability to lead in general:

I believe I'm going to win because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead. I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've made. And I’ve made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. People out there listening know what I believe.

Now if those quotes do not quite seem familiar to those who watched the debate, the reason is that McCain did not actually utter them last night. Rather, they were quotes by President Bush during his three debates with Kerry back in 2004. Despite a span of four years between them, these Bush quotes all sounded, in substance as well as in tone, very like what McCain was saying last night, don’t they?

My point in this exercise is not a “gotcha” on McCain but rather to demonstrate that, despite Senator Obama’s rapid political rise and relative inexperience, much of McCain’s arguments about his superior experience and judgment are less specific to this race than conventional wisdom assumes. Rather, they are merely much of same, tired talking points that Republicans have been using against Democrats for years now.

For all McCain’s insistence on how he has differed from President Bush on numerous issues, including the Iraq War, another Bush quote from those 2004 debates settles the matter definitively, in my mind.

My opponent keeps mentioning John McCain and I'm glad he did. John McCain is for me for President because he understands I have the right view in winning the war on terror and that my plan will succeed in Iraq. And my opponent has got a plan of retreat and defeat in Iraq.

Yet if anybody made the case best for Obama last night, it may have been McCain directly.

At one point, while discussing foreign policy, McCain talked about the importance of “a cool hand at the tiller.” He repeated this metaphor in his excellent closing remarks, saying, “When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller and the great honor of my life was to always put my country first.”

Both of those points are true. We do need a steady hand at the tiller and McCain does have a reputation of placing country first. The problem is that the latter is a non sequitur when applied as a solution to the former. Being more passionate, even more noble and selfless, toward a cause is not interchangeable with rationality and consistency in your policies.

Consistency and calmness is Obama’s strong suit, even at the risk of sometimes seeming too cool and non-empathetic. Obama will not win this fight with a knockout blow, no matter how much events run toward his advantage because that is simply not his style. Rather, once an advantage opens, Obama refuses to let it close again, driving it slowly but surely further apart with relentlessly steadfast dependability.

McCain was able to outflank Obama’s implacability once during this campaign with his choice of Palin as his running mate. But that advantage has run itself out and stabilized. McCain is the one who now must have a knockout blow. Every time he tries and fails, he reinforces the strength of Obama’s consistency as well as his perceived weakness.

Last night, Obama looked confident and relaxed, while McCain looked erratic, frantic, and flailing, even when he was coming on strong. If this election does come down as to whom voters perceive as the steadier hand at the tiller, each debate so far has left Obama looking increasingly Presidential and McCain looking increasingly like a typical politician who is losing.

No comments: