Saturday, September 27, 2008

Thoughts about last night's debate

Immediately upon debate's end, I checked my email, since I'm a member of several conservative blogger email groups, and I went wandering into the blogosphere to see what conservatives had to say about the debate. What I learned was that conservatives generally thought McCain was the winner. More surprisingly, I also learned that, in blogs meant for other liberals, as opposed to liberal sites for general public consumption (such as Time or Newsweek), people also thought McCain had done better. They were just grateful that their man was still standing at the end.

As it happens, I also agree that, substantively, McCain did better, but I'm not sure that's good enough. Here's what I thought of how the ordinary person would see it, rather than those who, like us, are extremely involved politically and therefore very knowledgeable about the underlying facts.

The informed (that would be us) could tell that McCain was more accurate and more responsible. However, McCain is sometimes an elliptical speaker, who starts a thought and then forgets to finish it, or who speaks in jargon (such as referring to the Department of Defense as the DOD). Obama, although his answers were ill-informed, involved prevarication or outright lies, and were abusive, was still the smoother speaker, and that was despite the stuttering. He has the lawyer's tactic of keeping the words flowing even when nothing is coming out. Listeners hear subject, verb, object and, unless they are themselves well-informed, don't track that they just heard "The phelmble reamplicated the intializer."

These communication styles -- McCain talking sense but sounding confusing, and Obama talking nonsense but sounding lucid -- mean that those who don't know the issues and don't know the facts (that would be a lot of the undecided voters), probably walked away thinking that Obama was more in command. We, the obsessive political wonks, looked at every smirk and interruption with disdain, but they just heard a smooth flow of words.

Certainly this takeway -- smooth Obama, rough McCain -- is already the message the talking heads in the MSM are beginning to emphasize. (See here, for example.)

McCain wasn't helped by Lehrer's ineptitude, made manifest when he asked how the financial crisis would affect their Presidential governance. Obama embarked on a convoluted, empty description of the way in which he was going to choose between his important programs, some of which we really need and others of which we only have to have. (His words, not mine.) McCain replied that he was going to cut spending everywhere.

Lehrer then came back at them claiming neither had told him how they were going to deal with a post-financial crisis Presidency -- but that, in fact, was precisely what McCain did tell him. Cut, cut, cut spending. If that's not a way to deal with government indebtedness, I don't know what is. But again, by asking that stupid question, Lehrer undercut the intelligence of McCain's answer, and brought it to the same level as Obama's waffling -- a problem made worse by McCain's elliptical speaking style, which prevented him from saying "Jim, I did answer your question. Just as a household would do when the money is tight, I'm going to tighten the belt everywhere, and I'm going to do that through increased efficiency."

If McCain is going to have a hands-down win in the next debate, he is going to have to tighten his speaking style. People need to hear his thoughts from beginning to end. They are the better, more informed thoughts, but if they get lost behind a less than linear speaking style, the public is going to gravitate to the smoother Obama, no matter how meaningless or dishonest his answers.

I'd like to blame my anticipation of public superficialitity on the fact that we live in an MTV/soundbite generation, but that's too easy. This problem has been around since the modern media intersected with elections. Warren G. Harding, although it's hard to believe it know, overwhelmed women (voting in their first election in 1920), because he looked so good in his pictures.

Likewise, back in 1960, America for the first time saw a televised debate, featuring knowledgeable, experienced Nixon, sweating like a pig since he had the flu, and facile, less experienced Kennedy, artifically tanned because of his hidden Addison's disease. Despite the fact that Nixon won on the radio, where people couldn't see faces, Kennedy won hands down on TV, where they could. It was a triumph of style over substance.

By the way, this is not a gloom and doom prophecy. I think McCain has shown himself to be a master of both strategy and tactics. With more sleep, and a wee bit more prep (not so much as to make him wooden), he can tighten his communication and leave Obama staring at his dust.


Zombywolf said...

Here's the weird and maybe frightening thing. I watched the debate twice. The first time, I thought McCain was reasonably good and Obama was a stuttering idiot at times, but the 2nd time I wasn't catching Obama's stutters, and I started wondering if that is how his followers see him. Of course, sometimes I think I might be falling victim to his whatever it is that makes people think he is so great--like a mass hypnotism or something.
I thought McCain was too nice to Obama, but the talking heads on the Liberal side kept saying how mean he was--I got so depressed I went to bed without even writing about it. It didn't help that my husband kept saying during the 2nd viewing that Obama was beating McCain. I started envisioning an Obama presidency and got sick at my stomach.

Anonymous said...

Which debate are you guys talking about? The same that everyone in the country admitted was won by Obama??

Stop smoking that stuff, it's not good for the head.

Anonymous said...

Obama got his butt kicked for most of the debate. He's very shy on experience and his cronies in the Chicago political machine didn't teach him how to take a verbal punch. Obama is a real zero in any job outside the Illinois legislature. He's minor league all the way.