For those who abide by the temperament criterion of presidential selection, the one concern about Barack Obama was that he might not have temper enough, that he might be too calm. So far as I am concerned, Obama's life story and his campaign for the nomination are proof positive that he can handle the fray. Still, I have to concede that in the debate on Friday, he did nothing to convince the skeptics that he has sufficient fire in his belly.
As nearly every commentator has noted, the ever-theatrical McCain played the tough guy, refusing to meet Obama's gaze and constantly chuckling, "Senator Obama does not get it."
The best method for handling unbridled aggression and to get an intellectual bully to put the brakes on himself is a stiff metaphorical rap on the snoot. Obama refused to deliver it. McCain would more or less insult him and more than a dozen times, Obama began his riposte with a weak, "I agree with John but..."
As Nora Ephron observed in her "Ringside" (Huffington Post, Sept. 28) men seem hardwired to read these debates as boxing matches. But it's not just testosterone poisoning. Debates are like boxing matches. They are a form of intellectual combat, not collaborative inquiry. The aim of a debate is to expose the weaknesses in your opponent's reasoning and to establish the superiority of your own position.
In both physical and intellectual strife it is critical to be able to take the measure of your rival's aggression and to adjust accordingly. Obama seemed oblivious to the fact that McCain was going for the jugular. When the Arizona senator brushed him off and banged away with wild charges intended to keep Barack on his heels, Obama demurred from returning the kind of fire that he promised to deliver in Denver.
For instance, McCain prattled on about big spending and scoffed at Senator Obama for the expensive programs he was proposing. Obama calmly trotted out his issues but he should have dropped the hammer and emphasized that it was McCain's deregulatory practices and those of his economic advisor, Phil Gramm, that have brought us to the brink of a 1929 like depression.
On the issue of Iraq and in response to McCain's surge operettas, Obama should have succinctly stated that the war that McCain passionately supported was built on false pretenses and that nothing, absolutely nothing, could be worse than backing a needless war. End of story. Instead Obama took his eye of the ball with his usual we-took-our-eye-off-the-ball stump speech.
When McCain swooned about his love and commitment for the troops, Obama should have pounced. Instead of, "I agree with John but..." it should have been, "It's ironic that for all of McCain's bluster about the troops he has voted against every single bill to increase veterans benefits."
When the man who tends to think of himself as Mr. McConscience boasted that he was known in the Senate as "the sheriff," Obama should have thrown the haymaker, "And who was the sheriff on duty during the Keating Five scandal?"
I knock on doors for the man every day, but to me Barack seemed intimidated. Like Ephron, I thought that McCain scored something close to a knockout. The outcomes of debates are all in the mind of the audience and thankfully it seems that my impressions were out of sync with most. Nevertheless, now that Obama has tangled with him, I am hoping that he will adjust to McCain's belligerence, and for just one night, stop trying to find common ground, in of all things, a debate.
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