Last night’s debate in Nashville did not offer anything enlightening regarding the candidates and their positions. As frustrated Ohio focus group members found, neither candidate offered any specific answers to the pointed questions that were posed. To be honest, it’s time we gave that idea up, anyway. The candidates gave us all they ever planned on giving us and all they plan to give us next Wednesday—an eloquent recital of their positions on the issues. Politician don’t go out on a limb when courting voters. They may get all “mavericky” when it comes to the hard work of creating and passing laws, but when they’re trying to earn or keep their jobs, they aren’t going to take any risks. If we want answers, we need to look at their records.
So who won? Since no one gets points for content, we are reduced to evaluating style. John McCain, who had promised to take his gloves off when facing his opponent, opted instead to try for affability. He said “my friends” often that I wanted to count it as a crutch phrase as we do in Toastmasters. He seemed so bitter and angry in Oxford, Mississippi, so offended that he had to even face this half-African politician that he couldn’t even look him in the eye. McCain seemed to be steeling his resentment as he pasted on a smile and used first names in a valiant attempt at friendliness. His war injuries made him move around like a stiff old man, but that quality would be endearing in another candidate. Perhaps it is endearing to conservatives who agree with him on the issues. However, the likable pose seemed forced. While Sarah Palin succeeded in her efforts to appear folksy and down to earth, McCain seemed like an old guard politician pandering for votes.
Barack Obama was the same as he always is—calm and reassuring. He is comfortable in his role, he in knowledgeable on the issues, and it showed. He uttered his share of “ums” and “uhs,” backtracked to rephrase sentences and skillfully dodged questions, but he gave a good performance. And his performance was a bit better than John McCain’s.
Why is it so clear that Obama won this debate? It was not the exchange that took place during the ninety minutes of trading stump speeches. Instead, it was what happened while the commentators and experts sat around picking everything apart. McCain and his wife left, while Barack and Michelle stayed and spoke with the group who had been chosen to ask the tough questions. The few shots we got of them, without audio, working the room, taking the time to listen and respond were all we needed. It was classic Obama. He may want to be president, but he cares about his country and its citizens. This simple act captured the true affection Obama has for American voters more effectively than any of McCain’s repeated “my friends.”
The point of a presidential debate is to present oneself as the best candidate to lead the country, not to win an argument. If the point of this debate was to show an affinity for the voting public, Barack Obama, by spending a little extra time with a small group of voters, may have done a lot more to reach a much large group.