There are some who believe Al Gore lost the presidency in part because of his behavior during the debates with George Bush in 2000. The head-shaking and sighing conveyed to some a distasteful attempt at superiority.
What we saw tonight from John McCain totally outclassed Gore's behavior in terms of being obnoxious. The question is, will he be called on it as Gore was? Probably not, although he should be, particularly since his answers were a little light on facts. But as we all know, judging debates is an iffy proposition.
As a debate tactic, McCain's behavior was understandable, and a classic Karl Rove characteristic. Take your weakness and make it a strength. Take your opponent's strength and make it a weakness.
In this case, McCain's weakness is his age, and Barack Obama's strength is his youth. McCain again and again tried to exploit it with the "you don't understand" meme, even though it was McCain who too often didn't understand what was being discussed.
The classic example was the distinction between strategy and tactics. Obama was right that the war was the overarching strategy. The "surge" was a tactic. Today's conditions may be attributable to the surge or, as some believe, to other changes in Iraqi society, like ethnic cleansing. In any case, the basic fact Obama hammered home was that the war had weakened us and strengthened Iran. McCain could only harp on our "defeat."
There is a way to answer this tactic. Call this the Aikido theory of debate. Aikido is a fascinating martial art that doesn't depend on kicks and punches. There's no Chuck Norris here. Instead, Aikido training teaches that one should use an opponent's strength and momentum against him. The opponent still lands flat on his back, but he gets there via his own aggressiveness. It's more elegant that way.
Obama scored early on when he had a litany of examples in which McCain was wrong about the war. He should have kept up that focus for the duration of the debate, and then more strongly flipped the "you don't understand" remark back at McCain.
Perhaps McCain, who says he favors the vets, "didn't understand" when he voted against increasing spending for veteran's care. Perhaps McCain, who was a prisoner, "didn't understand" that waterboarding is torture when he reversed his position and voted for it.
Perhaps McCain, who wants "victory" in Iraq, "doesn't understand" that the Iraqis want us out of the country.
That was the watchword for this debate. The next one may be different. Obama should be on the lookout for the catchphrase and take every opportunity to turn it against McCain. McCain showed in this debate he will use every snarky, pitiful reference he can pull out. Obama should show him that, even staying cool, he can give as good as he gets.
An example might come up next week during the vice presidential debate. Surely, Sarah Palin will portray herself as a "reformer" and a "maverick." Joe Biden can then come back with, "does a reformer hire a lobbyist to get earmarks?" "Does a maverick cut spending for special-needs children?"
The question is how the judges will score McCain's snark. When it comes to figuring out who wins, it helps to realize that a presidential debate is the evil spawn of Olympic gymnastics and Wall Street. It's how a gymnast can get a bronze medal when missing a landing and falling -- a totally subjective verdict. On Wall Street, it's a matter of meeting expectations. A company may gain 10% in its earnings, but if the Street thought it would be 15%, then the company gets hammered.
Obama did well meeting McCain's behavior head-on. Next time, a little guile will go a long way by helping to isolate and illuminate McCain's misleading and unfortunate tactics.