If you were one of the estimated 56.5 million people who tuned in to the final presidential debate on Oct. 15, you witnessed a contentious heavyweight fight. This debate will be remembered not only for the candidates’ clashes of ideology, but also for clashes of style. A quick read of the transcript would give the impression that John McCain’s aggression delivered him a much needed primetime victory. Nevertheless, the most reputable polls still show Barack Obama with a commanding and implacable lead. This is because although McCain was fiery and fierce, the American presidency is not a debate tournament trophy, but a show of faith from American voters that they believe in the president’s leadership. Simply put, Obama looked more “presidential” than McCain.
How can John McCain—war hero, statesmen, four-term senator—not look presidential? Despite preconceptions, McCain managed to pull off exactly that. Before the debate, McCain claimed he would “whip [Obama’s] you-know-what.” This is an odd thing to hear from a candidate who criticized Obama’s promise to meet with foreign leaders without pre-conditions by proclaiming, “You don’t say that out loud.” Similarly, Mr. McCain, “whip his you-know-what” is not something that a president would say. Not only is it vulgar, but it also conveys the wrong message about American hegemony. The American president is exceptional; he, or she, is supposed to have the advantage. Like my football coach used to say, “act like you’ve been there.”
In the actual debate McCain exhibited the same uncontrolled behavior. While he battled hard, Obama remained cool and reserved. For instance, McCain looked rather emotional when describing John Lewis’s racial remarks about his rallies. McCain complained, “That, to me, was so hurtful.” Obama took the tough Reagan-like stance: “I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply.” As if to add some credibility to that statement, while barely changing his posture, Obama offered the counterexample of people at McCain’s rallies who have chanted, “Kill him.” Americans do not want a weak president who bellyaches about how hurt he or she was by an attack ad, especially in the middle of a three-front war on terrorism, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the globe—not to mention the financial crisis.
Of course, McCain had great moments in the 90 minute debate. After being criticized for Republican policies, McCain told Obama, “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” Even though Obama has demonstrated an aptitude to think on his feet, he simply did not have a comeback for this zinger. It is worth noting that the studio audience, which was supposed to remain absolutely silent, exclaimed and gasped at the line. Those watching could even see a look of glory in McCain’s eyes—the look a major league batter gets when he knows by the feel of the baseball hitting the bat that he just hit a home run. It was a victory, but McCain’s zinger was just as short-lived as a home run. The debate moved on, the topics changed, and the one-liner became a soundbyte, not a game-changer.
Joe the Plumber was also a good move. McCain was able to take a confusing argument about Obama’s tax plan and make it resonate in the age of the ten-second soundbyte. Although most Americans do not make $250,000 a year, many Americans aspire to do so. Thus, most are not excited to be burdened with extra taxes when they get there. Furthermore, McCain argued, if small businesses have their taxes increased, then those who work for small businesses or consume small businesses products are affected by lower wages and higher prices. This line of reasoning was conveyed effectively by McCain’s Joe the Plumber reference, as well as Joe Wurzelbacher’s YouTube clip and subsequent televisions appearances.
Beyond these two debate points, Obama handled McCain’s barbs decently. He deftly brushed aside the claim McCain made that Obama had befriended domestic terrorist Bill Ayers by reminding McCain that Ayers’s attacks occurred 40 years ago, when Obama was eight years old. Furthermore, the extent of their relationship was merely that they both served “on a school reform board funded by one of Ronald Reagan’s former ambassadors and close friends, [Walter] Annenberg. Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of The Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper.” Obama also expertly defended his partial birth abortion voting record by explaining that there was no clause in the bill allowing protection of the mother’s health.
There is more to a debate than what is verbally communicated. Physical communication and eloquence, are also very important. Obama spoke with a water-faucet flow, flashing his gleaming smile intermittently. McCain’s speech had the flow of a traffic jam in a snow storm, as he confused syntax and became short of breath. This stuff matters. McCain argued like he was down in the polls. On the other hand, you could almost see Obama thinking the line that made Reagan famous: “There you go again.”
Running for the American presidency is unlike any other job and its application process is accordingly unique. On Nov. 4, America will not just elect talking points, ten-part plans, and clever soundbytes, but a leader with the vision to set the tone for America both at home and abroad. Although McCain did a decent job on the technical criteria, he had woefully inadequate forethought. A president can always hire brilliant advisers to set policy, but when it comes to leadership the buck stops here.
George Hayward ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Currier House. He is Political Action Chair of the Black Students Association and was a Harvard Institute of Politics Director’s Intern at Barack Obama’s Senate Office this summer.