Put aside all the polling about who won last night, despite the fact it all pretty clearly leads towards Obama as the winner. If I was the McCain campaign, there is something else that would worry me. After the debate last night, I noted:
Someone should Lexis-nexis the 2000 post-debate coverage in which they chided Gore for his sighing. I remember a lot of talk about how the debates were a time to let voters decide what candidate they wanted in their house for the next four years and blah blah blah kill me now you inane loudmouths.
If we were to use the Al Gore criteria, John McCain got his ass kicked tonight. He was a cranky old SOB, scowling and ranting “You don’t understand” and generally just a dick. Folks on tv are calling it “vintage McCain.” Loosely translated, that means everyone knows he is a dick, they just can not say it on tv.
I am not sure if you all remember how bad the prevailing narrative was for Gore after the first debate, but it was devastating. An alert reader mailed in some samples:
By the time he got through rolling his eyes, heaving sighs every two minutes and interrupting Jim Lehrer constantly during the first presidential debate, Al Gore probably couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher on the strength of his personal charm. A good argument could be made that the game was lost right there. Among those who have admitted to preparing Gore for that catastrophe was former Clintonista Paul Begala, a man whose dramaturgic wisdom is probably bad enough to make him a future election night commentator.***
The debate was especially important to Gore. Instant reaction to the first debate in Boston on Oct. 3 declared him the winner. Except that what people remembered wasn’t what he said, but how he exhaled. He tried to put the focus on the size of Bush’s tax cut; what people remembered were the sighs of Gore’s impatience. Round one: Bush by default.***
But Mr. Bush’s biggest boost among married mothers might have come unwittingly from Mr. Gore. In a focus group of Democrats, Republicans and undecided voters assembled by ABC to watch the debate, the women deemed Mr. Gore obnoxious and arrogant.
All those sighs and eye rolls! Married women know those sighs all too well. They have heard them from their husbands and know they are meant as condescending putdowns.
You can lament that elections should be all about the issues, or you can accept the reality that this sort of stuff killed Gore. Bob Somerby still is furious about it. At any rate, it was sighs and eye-rolling in 2000, but in 2008 it will be anger, contempt, and the refusal to make eye contact. Take it way, Eugene Robinson:
Here’s the politically incorrect way of phrasing one of the central questions about tonight’s presidential debate: Did John McCain come across as too much of a grumpy old man?
That might not be a nice question, but it’s an important one. Americans like to vote for the nice guy, not the grumbling prophet of doom. Throughout the 90-minute debate, McCain seemed contemptuous of Obama. He wouldn’t look at him. He tried to belittle him whenever possible — how many times did he work “Senator Obama just doesn’t understand” into his answers? His body language was closed, defensive, tense. McCain certainly succeeded in proving that he can be aggressive, but the aggression came with a smirk and a sneer.
Your turn, Tom Shales:
John McCain wore the more presidential tie — that much can be said for him — but Barack Obama displayed the more presidential temperament, or the kind of demeanor people presumably would want in a president, when the two candidates met at the University of Mississippi last night for their first debate of the campaign.
Both men seemed well equipped in terms of facts and figures — especially, as one would expect, dollar figures — and neither made an outrageous blunder, although McCain did misidentify the new president of Pakistan. More critically, he came across as condescending and even rude to his opponent, a bit of bad behavior especially evident because Obama may have overdone the fair-minded bit in many of his remarks and answers.
Imperiously enough, McCain — who had threatened not to show up for the debate because of America’s financial crisis — seemed determined to avoid even looking at Obama as the debate went on, although they did shake hands at the beginning and end. Many of McCain’s answers were preceded with belittling references to Obama as if he were talking to a college freshman way out of his depth: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy,” was one typical remark.
Bring us home, LA Times:
Obama declined to be belittled. Although McCain refused to address him directly — despite encouragement from moderator Jim Lehrer — Obama looked at and spoke to McCain. Obama often credited McCain on issues — a grace that was not reciprocated — but he did not accept the role of junior candidate.
That is just a sample of what is going to come. Look for the appearance of the following words in days to come: cranky, grumpy, crotchety, angry, mean, rude, sneering, snarling, contemptuous, off-putting, snide, boorish, and worst of all, not Presidential. SNL will probably drive the point home in a skit that will become the dominant narrative tonight, and McCain will become boxed in regarding his behavior in the second debate, much as Gore was unable to be as aggressive as he wanted in the second debate (I remember the running joke was that Gore had been medicated for the second debate). And if McCain does not tone down the contempt, it will simply feed the narrative. Or, if we are really lucky, as someone suggested in another thread, McCain will overcompensate and spend the entire time comically and creepily attempting to make eye contact with Obama (think Al Gore walking across the stage to stand next to Bush, and Bush looking at him as if to think “WTF are you doing?”).
This should be terrifying for the McCain campaign for two reasons. First, the base will not understand it. To them, a sneering, contemptuous jerk is a feature, not a bug. When they try to tone down McCain, it will turn off the diehards. Look at the reaction of the base to Palin’s RNC speech- they LOVED that she was, for all intents and purposes, nothing but an asshole the entire speech. They loved the “zingers” that were written for her. The rest of the country recoiled in horror, and Obama raised ten million the next 48 hours.
Second, they have spent the last few months angrily lashing out at the media, and these were the folks who used to love McCain. The campaign no longer allows McCain to talk to the media, and the Straight Talk Express is the “No Talk” Express these days. So for the bobbleheads that will be pushing the new narrative of the mean old McCain, the contrast is real. It wasn’t just the snarling you and I saw on tv. It was the contrast from the nice, friendly, have some BBQ here are your donuts McCain to the new one. They used to know him as their friend, now he is a jerk- the change to them is more dramatic than it is to us, and as such, the mean McCain narrative will be easier for them to adopt and pass along.
This thing is going to spread and will be really bad for Johnny Drama, and I am loving it.