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The McCain-isms that Lost the Debate, If Not the Election

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In presidential elections, winning and losing results less from the facts presented, than the keywords and key phrases repeated.  At no time was this more true than last night's debate in Tennessee.

Second Debate Turns McCain-isms into Major Problem for Republican Chances
More than clarifying John McCain's policy positions, the second Presidential
debate showcased the Arizona senator's idiosyncratic tendency to repeat
(and repeat, and repeat) certain peculiar phrases while speaking to
voters.  Over the course of 90 minutes,  these oft-repeated
'McCain-isms' not only sank any chance the Republican candidate might
have had at winning the debate, but decreased significantly his chances
of winning the election.

Without question, Obama appeared much more comfortable in the circular open stage of the Town Hall setting than McCain.  Despite having called for more Town Hall debates, McCain seemed physically lost at times in the format.  At one point, McCain walked backward while delivering an answer, creating an unmistakable image of anxiousness.

But beyond the staging, there were three phrases that McCain repeated, thereby binding himself over and over with the unfavorable trappings of an earnest, but ultimately untrustworthy politician.

McCain-ism #1: "My Friends" - The Neurotic
Last night, John McCain repeated the phrase 'my friends' 19 times:

  1. MY FRIENDS, until we stabilize home values in America, we're never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy
  2. I know how the do that, MY FRIENDS
  3. MY FRIENDS, do we need to spend that kind of money?
  4. MY FRIENDS, we are not going to be able to provide the same benefit for present-day workers that we are going -- that present-day retirees have today
  5. MY FRIENDS, some of this $700 billion ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations
  6. MY FRIENDS, the last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Herbert Hoover
  7. So let's not raise anybody's taxes, MY FRIENDS
  8. We know what the problems are, MY FRIENDS, and we know what the fixes are
  9. MY FRIENDS, what we have to do with Medicare is have a commission, have the smartest people in America come together, come up with recommendations
  10. Let's look at our records, MY FRIENDS
  11. That's the good news, MY FRIENDS
  12. MY FRIENDS, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth
  13. I vote against them, MY FRIENDS. I vote against them
  14. We've got to drill offshore, MY FRIENDS, and we've got to do it now
  15. MY FRIENDS, we have gone to all four corners of the Earth and shed American blood in defense
  16. We don't have time for on-the-job training, MY FRIENDS
  17. Well, let me just follow up, MY FRIENDS
  18. There was a lot at stake there, MY FRIENDS
  19. I'll get Osama bin Laden, MY FRIENDS

If there was any phrase that defined John McCain in last night's debate, it was not a phrase about foreign policy or the economy or the military.  It was the phrase  'my friends.'  So what does it say about McCain when he repeats this over and over--how does this quintessential McCain-ism ring in the ears of American voters?

In a word: neurotic.

I spoke to about a dozen people after the debate last night, and listened to about as many pundits. Almost everybody noticed McCain's repetition of the phrase 'my friends,' but not one person said that the McCain-ism made them feel positive about the candidate.  Instead, people said that 'my friends' gave McCain an air of nervousness, phoniness--strangeness.  Rather than connecting 'my friends' to some positive quality of McCain, debate observers used the phrase as a starting point for attempts at explaining what was 'wrong' with McCain in this debate and in general.  Several voters voiced some version of thought in response to hearing 'my friends' from McCain:

McCain said 'my friends' so many times!  But it's not like he actually is my friend.  He sounds phony when he says that so much.  Annoying. 


One has to guess that McCain uses the phrase 'my friends' as part of a rhetorical strategy to connect with the audience, but the effect is the opposite.  The phrase has a grating result on people, pushing them a way from McCain and towards a conversation about 'what is wrong' with the candidate and why a candidate would repeat such a phrase so often.

McCain-ism #2: "My Hero" - The Sycophant
Last night,  McCain repeated the phrase 'my hero' only twice, but he impact was noticeable:

  1. President Reagan, MY HERO
  2. MY HERO is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt

For some reason, McCain peppers his campaign speech with references to 'my hero,' most often citing  Ronald Reagan.  In some instances, he calls someone 'my hero' in order to demonstrate that he bucked authority, while in other cases he is simply expressing admiration.  But in both cases, the end result is very bad for McCain's candidacy.

The dictionary defines 'sycophant' as:

a person who acts obsequiously toward someone in order to gain advantage; a servile flatterer.


Perhaps Reagan and Roosevelt are McCain's 'heros,' perhaps not.  Nobody can truly know what is in another person's heart.  But what comes across to voters when McCain describes famous politicians as 'my hero' is a gut feeling that he is doing so to gain advantage--servile flattery.

No matter how old or young a voter may be, no matter where they were born, no matter what their ideological leanings may be, wealthy or poor, man or woman--we have all encountered a sycophant in or lives.  And nobody--I mean absolutely nobody--observes a person engaged in servile flattery and thinks, 'Gosh, I really like this person.'  We think instead, 'Yuck. Gross. Pathetic.'

Americans do not look kindly on people who flatter the boss to get ahead.  Sycophants are ridiculed in thousands of movies and books because Americans believe that if you work  hard you get ahead and that people who get ahead by calling the boss 'my hero,' are not really qualified or deserving of the job they landed.

McCain-ism #3: "I Know How To" - The Know-It-All
Over the course of last night's debate, Sen. McCain repeated the phrase 'I know how to' seven times:

  1. I KNOW HOW TO do that, my friends
  2. I KNOW HOW TO get America working again
  3. I KNOW HOW TO fix this economy
  4. I KNOW HOW TO do that
  5. I KNOW HOW TO handle these crises
  6. I KNOW HOW TO get him
  7. I KNOW HOW TO do it

The funny thing about a 'know-it-all,' as any kid in grade school can already explain:  they rarely know what it is they claim to know.  Constantly telling someone 'I know how to' says less about one's skills than about one's deep need  to be seen as skillful. 

This was the impression McCain gave to voters each time he repeated 'I know how to':  insecurity.

Why would someone who claims to be an expert in foreign policy, who claims to be an expert in military policy, who claims to be an expert in energy policy, who claims to be an expert in backroom politics--why would McCain be insecure?  Because despite all his supposed skills, the 2008 presidential campaign has brought to light very little actual accomplishment in the record of John McCain.  Despite all the accusations from the McCain campaign that Barack Obama 'has no experience,' the McCain campaign has offered virtually nothing as evidence of John McCain's accomplishment.  McCain has a decorated record as a war veteran, no question, but as a man who claims 'I know how to,' he has nothing to show for having done much.

What Americans hear when McCain repeats 'I know how to,' is not a man with actual skill, but a man who wants to be at the center, at the top more than he knows what to do if he should get there.  Ultimately, the know-it-all becomes the least trusted person in the room because with each claim of expertise, we grow less and less convinced of anything but their egotism.

McCain-ism:  The Neurotic, The Sycophant, and The Know-It-All
If anything lost the debate for McCain it was the repetition of these three key phrases, each of which gave the impression that he was an insecure politician rather than a confident leader.

Above all else, Americans in Presidential elections look for a candidate to project an image of confidence. In his performance last night, McCain did just the opposite.  And the weight of those phrases, repeated on the stage and amplified in countless stories throughout the media, will likely sink his poll numbers even further.

In an age of internet politics, policy arguments are the stuff of campaign websites. In the debates, voters get a chance to hear what the candidates repeat.  And last night, what we heard over and over from John McCain was not the stuff of a candidate who claims victory in November.

(cross posted from Frameshop)