The second debate

Watching a presidential debate in high definition is definitely a different experience, and not necessarily for the better. You obviously get a much better picture quality that translates into more of a feeling that you area in the room instead of watching the debates from hundreds of miles away. The bad part: our candidates look a lot older than I thought. Even Barack Obama, who is four years younger than I am, is graying. Moderator Tom Brokaw hardly looked youthful either; he is pushing seventy. All the pancake makeup in the world could not hide his age.

During the summer, John McCain invited Barack Obama to debate him at all sorts of town hall debates. Obama turned him down and now I understand why. At least this “town hall” debate had zero energy because both candidates found it too scary to allow an honest exchange with participants to occur. There was virtually no back and forth with the questioners and the few questioners called on had to read their question verbatim from an index card.

According to Nielsen, this second debate drew 42.1% of viewers whereas the first debate drew in only 34.7% of viewers. Good news of you who missed the first debate: this debate was largely a retread of the first debate! It turns out that three debates may be about two more than are necessary since we get the same talking points repeatedly and learn little new. The economy may be collapsing but neither McCain nor Obama offered any immediate practical suggestions on how the Joe Six-packs of the world should deal with the problem. (Ms. Palin might suggest shooting wolves from helicopters.) Both candidates seemed more concerned with scoring hits on the other’s talking points than coherently addressing the questions.

Moreover, neither felt particularly constrained by the debate rules they mutually agreed to adhere to. This annoyed me and it also irked moderator Tom Brokaw. Green light, yellow light, red light, it didn’t matter to the candidates. Instead, they just kept yammering. The “two-minute” response was more like three minutes. The “one-minute discussion” was more like two or three minutes. Yes, yes, I know. We are selecting the new leader of the free world and it’s so important to hear what they have to say. Still, aside from letting each speak in turn, neither could be bothered with rules. Each figured that whoever could get the most words out would win.

I hope that in twenty years when I reach John McCain’s age I look better than he does. He looks bad. From his sagging skin and yellow teeth I would have guessed he was in his mid eighties. I especially hope I do not walk around a stage like a marionette when I am his age. His choppy hand motions looked ridiculous. His spine must be out of alignment because he couldn’t seem to stand without hunching forward. Town hall formats are supposed to be his expertise, but apparently, he hasn’t actually debated much in a town hall format. His voice quickly became grating and he felt compelled to insincerely call everyone “my friend”. (All except, naturally, Senator Obama, who at one point he contemptuously called “that one”.) Rather than look at his opponent, he retreated to his chair to scribble into his pad. Moreover, McCain demonstrated the same magnetic charm as an eel. He proved once again to be a poor debater and neither a terribly artful nor an especially articulate fellow. I mean no disrespect for senior citizens as I expect to be there soon enough, but he looked more like a walking corpse than a human being. If he knocked on my door on Halloween, offered me his hand and called me “my friend” he would have given me the fright of my life.

I am not sure what his motivations are for running for president, but for all his claim to put “country first” it looks like he is far more interested in putting his domineering ego first. He seems incapable of communicating empathy, which might be because he never learned how to give any. And oh, you could see again that his anger was lurking just below the surface. I also do not think he knows how to relax. He comes across as constantly keyed up and exceptionally awkward looking. I wish he would use all of Cindy’s millions to do something useful, like get some anger management therapy. He again avoided looking at Senator Obama and even went out of his way to avoid shaking his hand after the debate. You would hardly expect this behavior from someone who claims to be bipartisan.

Nor was Obama at the top of his form. Fortunately, he can be operating at eighty percent and still come across convincingly. Obama remained generally unruffled by McCain’s verbal barrages and was always measured and civil. The closest thing to incivility was his often bemused looks at McCain while he was speaking. He did have a high point or two, such as when he addressed his own impoverished childhood. That likely connected with many voters. Nonetheless, Obama would have done much better in this format by forthrightly addressing the questions that were addressed to him, rather than weaseling around the subjects.

Who won? Once again, snap polls suggest it was Obama, but really, it was the viewers that lost. We were cheated out of a real debate. We learned little new from either candidate on the issues, watched lots of high stakes sniping, heard numerous claims and counter claims (most of them bogus or inflated) and little in the way of candor. McCain proved he was far more interested in trees than the forest. He got in a lather because on an Obama earmark for a three million dollar “projector”, which was in reality a new projector globe for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. This is not exactly the sort of equipment that you can purchase at Office Depot. One can certainly argue about whether it was a purchase worthy of federal funding, but one cannot argue that a planetarium educates thousands of people a year on the universe, so a better projector would be of value.

I know it is impossible, but I would have liked to heard them say the truth: no one can right this economy overnight, and only long term structural changes in our financial markets will lead to recovery. I guess that kind of candor is not presidential.

So Obama wins again by not losing. The election dynamics remain in his favor and his scientific and measured approach proves his strategy is working. Whether it helps us make more informed choices is debatable.

Perhaps McCain’s sourness was due to a subconscious realization that he lost the election on Black Monday. Perhaps he knows but cannot admit to himself that he contributed substantially to the mess, and the polls reflect that he is paying his dues. His presidency was never meant to be but was instead a manifestation of his inflated ego. He got lucky this time solely because of the toxic political climate for run of the mill Republicans. It is hard to imagine any scenario at any time where he would have captured the enthusiasm of a majority of Americans. Seeing him in this debate was like watching someone nailing themselves into their own coffin. It was sad.

I hope to watch the last debate next Wednesday from my hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona. I keep hoping that we will get a real debate, but it is clear that on the economy at least both are too scared to tell us the truth. And that’s not presidential.

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