Saturday, September 27, 2008

Top Gun v. Will Hunting...And The Winner Is?

What do you need to know about last night's Presidential Debate? It pretty much comes down to this: fighter pilot v. academia. Yep, that just about sums it up. Two very different men, who both love their country, showcasing very different approaches to our common issues.

Even if you know everything there is to know about the big ticket issues (the economy, the environment, Iran, health care, the Iraq War, taxes, etc.) and where the candidates stand on them, debates are a great forum to see how candidates handle themselves in front of a non-partisan audience and under the adversity that comes from being directly challenged by your opponent. Debates can also give great insight into the character of candidates due to the fact that they are less scripted than a stump speech.

Are they confident or cocky? Are they tough or do they crumble under pressure? Can they take a hit and then dish it back? Can they get specific about HOW they will accomplish goals or are they still stuck expounding on what the goal is? Do they know their shit or are they full of shit?

And most importantly, can they pronounce foreign nouns correctly? Because, for God's sake, I've had enough of (as @rawallison put it so perfectly last night on Twitter) "Eye-Rak" and "Eye-Ran" to last me a good long while.

I got some answers to the above questions in last night's debate and came a little closer to sealing the deal on my candidate of choice. I never make a final decision until I'm there at the voting booth, because what goes down right before an election can be really eye-opening. Sometimes you think you've settled it based solely on the issues and then three days before the election somebody will do something ridiculous that causes you to rethink your whole decision based on a revolting and previously unrevealed personality trait. Like it or not, most of America doesn't vote on the issues. They vote based on who they like and who they relate to. And let's be honest, even those of us who do look deep back into voting records and take time to really consider the consequences and benefits of proposed plans, make our decisions partially based on personality.

So, of course I had to watch last night and watch these two personalities paired head-to-head. Here's what I learned in my hour and half in front of the T.V.

John McCain's strategy is to gain voter trust by making Barack Obama out to be naive and ignorant to world issues, while at the same time playing up his own 30 years experience in Washington (Note: you are correct in wondering why he should be cleared from any sort of blame for being PART of the government that has gotten us into the mess we currently find ourselves surrounded by. Answer: Because he said so...and because he's evidently one of those rare holy grails of politics--The self-professed Maverick. Comforting knowledge indeed). The twist in the story is that McCain is also proclaiming himself as a change candidate--one that can stand up to Washington and mend their evil and corrupt ways.

McCain's tactics, during the debate, included mentioning his relationships with and adoration of Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger every two minutes and repeating the assertion that Obama just "doesn't understand" because he wasn't there back in the day. It also included a list of his summer vacation destinations and the people he "knows" and "knows how to work with" because, as previously mentioned, "[He's] been there." Just in case you were curious, people & places that made it on his list were: Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Israel, Vladamir Putin, Pakistan, The 1980s in Washington, The 1990s in Washington and the 2000s in Washington. Also making appearances: Elton John, Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan, every ma and pa coffee shop owner in small-town America, Michael Vick, the moon, the Dalai Lama, the world's largest ball of string, Oprah, the south pole, the north pole, me, my momma and of course, last, but not least... yo momma.

Yeah, well George W. Bush went to New Orleans and hung out with the people from the 9th ward after Hurricane Katrina. We've all seen how much good THAT did. Sorry, but having access to Air Force One and a valid passport stamped full doesn't automatically qualify one as a good leader capable of achieving diplomatic success. Good try though.

Now, playing the whole name dropping and "I've been there, done that" games got real old, real fast, but that's more annoying than problematic to me. I get why McCain is doing it--it proves he has the relationships and experience to get things done on the world stage. Cool. What's disappointing for me is to see a man, whom I've previously found to be very classy, begin to use the tactic of attacking Obama as a person. Very not classy.

Last night I found John McCain to be very condescending and disrespectful towards Barack Obama concerning his understanding of the world and evidently of the words "tactic" and "strategy." What is this, the SATs? Pretty sure he gets it. I mean, it's not like Barack Obama is clueless. He's not George W. Bush and he's not 18 either. He's freakin' 47 and has degrees from Columbia and Harvard (that weren't earned with Daddy's money on "Gentleman's Cs"). I'd rather have heard more from McCain about why Obama's policy ideas won't be successful. I'd rather have heard him speak in more detail about his plans rather than continually question Obama's intellectual capacity on vocabulary and history.

Obama's "Change" platform is geared to inspire voters to get re-engaged based on the idea that together we can affect positive change. But lately, Obama has also had to tie John McCain to President Bush's to convince us that McCain's claim that he too represents a change isn't true. Obama got in some good punches about McCain's record on President Bush's biggest proposals and how McCain supposedly agrees with the President 90% of the time. But he spent more time attempting to play defense from McCain's jabs about his naivety than convincing me of the inevitability of four years of George W. Bush Part II: The McCain years. I say attempting because McCain basically shut him out from any defensive tactic several times by continuing to defiantly rattle on over Obama's response--which I saw as tacky and a little desperate.

In spite of often being on defense, Obama did a reasonably good job in avoiding the appearance of being emotionally defensive, but you can't win any game without passionate defense (there is such a fine line between the two, but the best politicians find a way to walk it). When he found room to make a defensive move, Obama was prepared to contradict McCain's assertions with information. I just didn't see much passion when McCain was laying into him; more frustration at being talked over than taking deep offense to the assertions. That's got to change and here's why: Effective and passionate defense always opens up opportunity for aggressive offense. Obama can't let McCain talk over him like he did last night if he wants to win either of the next debates, or the election in November. He must find a way to walk the line between passion and pathetic. So much of politics is making power plays and the candidate with the appearance of power and strength often comes out on top. Even though McCain's aggression may be viewed negatively by undecided voters, Obama's response to it is equally as important. I expected Obama to do something more about the bully-like abuse coming from McCain, but was left feeling disappointed in the lack of action from him. Passivity is NOT how you affect change dude.

I don't think I'm alone in saying that I walked away wanting more from both of the candidates. There are still so many unanswered questions and still 38 days until the election. That's a hell of a lot of time and plenty enough for somebody to utter a Howard Dean Scream and throw the whole thing away.

Note: Photographs used for this story are by David Mills for the New York Times.

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