Saturday, October 18, 2008

A sigh of relief

Americans are giving out a collective sigh of relief now that the debates are over. Polls, columnists and opinion pages have awarded victory in every debate to Obama. Wednesday night was John McCain’s last big chance to change things. It didn’t happen.

The Republican talking heads liked what they heard. McCain played to his base on Wednesday night. There is one huge problem with this tactic: the middle of October is not the time to play to your base; instead, it is the time to play to the moderate voters. The policies he proposed for the economy are mostly in line with Republican orthodoxy. He had the same two answers to almost every economic question: 1. cut taxes and government spending, and 2. Joe the Plumber.* McCain made it clear that his intention is to cut taxes, even more than Bush has, for the richest Americans and reduce the government services that working class Americans need more than ever.

McCain’s obvious goal was to try to throw Obama off his game, but he began to undercut himself when he grew extremely angry while attacking Obama over his ties to William Ayers, the Chicago professor who helped found the Weather Underground terrorism group 40 years ago. Instead of gaining ground by showing command on the top issue for voters, the economy, he kept trying to come back to Ayers, but eventually ended the attack by saying that an aging from 40-years-ago did not matter to him – which I believe was probably a true statement. The Ayers tactic is just that, a tactic, and one that has backfired in the polls.

For McCain’s punches to make a difference, they had to rattle, to wound, or cause the opponent to counterpunch in a self-defeating way. The only person appearing nervous and rattled during the debate was McCain. His facial expressions conveyed a lack of calm that everyone from average voters to seasoned political observers say is a damaging trait for a presidential candidate in the midst of an economic crisis. There were copious eye-rolling, constant nervous blinking, frequent and exaggerated wide-eyed "I can't believe what he's saying" looks, and, as the debate progressed, a stiff, uncomfortable, look-straight-ahead expression that was in marked contrast to Obama's trademark unflappable calm, which was spiced up with some head shakes and a grin that said "there he goes again."

During McCain’s attacks on Obama, he would unconsciously jut out in tongue. When someone juts out his tongue during conversation, he either thinks he is being funny or, more likely, he is uncomfortable with what he is saying – like he has been caught doing something wrong. Retired FBI agent Joe Navarro, a Bluff Magazine columnist, said, “Reptilian tongue-jutting behavior is a gesture used by people who think they have gotten away with something or are caught doing something.” McCain, through his body language, has shown that he feels as if he is being caught doing something wrong.

Another bad omen for Republican presidential candidate John McCain: He blinks heavily. According to Boston University psychology professor J.J. Tecce, candidates who blink more than their opponents during debates tend to lose presidential elections. “People are picking up McCain’s rapid blinking and saying there’s something about him that’s awfully twitchy and nervous and I don’t think I want to vote for that guy.”

McCain veered from one hot button to another, pressing them all, hoping to goad Obama into an outburst or a mistake that would alter the shape of the race in its last three weeks. Obama, on the defensive, showing a bit more animation than he had in the previous debates, remained calm and collected, showing the survival skills that he learned in his brutal 16-month primary battle with Hillary Clinton. To show that he could be trusted to change the direction of the country, Obama kept bringing the debate back around to the economy, while remaining relaxed and steady. His most crucial task was to appear bemused and unruffled in the face of McCain’s attacks, which the Obama campaign knew were coming – and that is just what he did.

McCain’s most memorable line was when he tried to distance himself from President Bush. "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country." This line may have worked earlier in the campaign, but not now when most people have made up their minds, but a few days from now, no one will remember much of what was said during the debate. The policies spoken, the attacks made, were the same that had been heard from both candidates for weeks. What will be remembered is the demeanor, the body language. McCain’s nervous, angry, erratic, tongue-jutting behavior with his occasional deer in the headlights look is what will be remembered about him. Obama was relaxed, poised, and presidential, handling McCain's barrage of attacks without folding. That is all Obama really needed to do to freeze the dynamics of the campaign in place during the debate – dynamics that by and large favor him.

The debate was not a game changer. Since most polls are showing support for Obama has crossed over 50%, McCain had to actually change minds to win. He didn't.

Let’s say that something happens that causes a McCain victory: Robert Goidel, a Patchwork Nation blogger and professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, has commented that the policy prescriptions from both Obama and McCain, the larger themes, tend to be Democratic.

“Even if McCain were to somehow win, the Democrats have won,” Professor Goidel wrote. “What I mean by this is the conversation is no longer ‘ending welfare as we know it’ or ‘government is the problem not the solution.’ The question is – what can government do to address a failing economy, a health care system that needs reform, and a world that is no longer at our command.”

Some of the strongest issues for the GOP in the past 20+ years have involved the restraining of government. In an election where the stock market is free-falling and where people are talking about the possibility of another “Great Depression,” those arguments may have lost much of their power with voters. Suddenly, “spreading around the wealth” sounds really good to many people.

After November 4, this nation, heavily burdened from eight years of Bush policies, will move away from neo-conservative policies with a sigh of relief, no matter who is at the helm.

* see "All About Joe" post