Friday, September 05, 2008

Handicapping The Debates

Alright friends, you have seen the heavy groups. Now you will hear morning maniac music. Believe me.

It's a new dawn.

-Grace Slick at Woodstock


The Democrats have spoken. The Republicans have spoken. From now on out, expect a daily dose of attack-style politics and increasingly personal attacks. Nothing will be off limits, except of course, families. (And maybe not even then) When the total impact of the RNC shows up in polls at the first of next week, Obama's bounce will subside and I predict the race will again be effectively tied for quite a while.

Three weeks from today, the first Presidential debate will be held at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. I fully expect the race to be firmly deadlocked at the moment both speakers take their places behind the podium. For two candidates who have never been confused as experts at the discipline of verbal jousting, I recommend both begin honing their skills now. Cliches are in no short supply during any campaign and from the first debate forward, the phrase "acting Presidential" will find its way into everyone's summary and analysis of the proceedings. It will certainly be fascinating to observe who comes across sounding, acting, and behaving best in that regard.

This year, Democrats are negotiating from a position of strength due to the unpopularity of George W. Bush and the resulting deeply tarnished Republican brand. Obama's performance in the over twenty debates held during the Primary campaign reveal him to be a solid, steady, but altogether unremarkable debater. He did, however, improve greatly from contest to contest, and, if practice truly makes perfect, the exhaustive, lengthy run up to the general have given the Illinois senator a substantial advantage over McCain. Most of the fireworks on the Republican side did not involve the now official GOP nominee. Though there were a few prickly moments between the Arizona senator and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Republican debates were relatively subdued and unremarkable.

If prior behavior dictates future conduct, McCain's responses will likely be the most heavily scripted, down to the attacks on his opponent. The cerebral Obama, by contrast, has rarely resorted to one-liners or blistering attacks in debate settings, instead intent on framing the context and resulting direction of the proceedings, this forcing others to fashion their responses within those specific parameters. Obama's strategy is wisely designed to make his opponent fight on his terms and on his territory. McCain's famous temper has been kept largely in check but in an extemporaneous format such as this, one wonders if we'll see any perceptible flashes of it. Obama's ability to shake off barbs and callous comments will likely be to his advantage again, though he has not been immune to firing back in exasperation when his patience finally reaches its end.

The 1980 election between Reagan and Carter was, statistically speaking, dead even by the time the debates. That's another analogy soon to see massive usage if this year's Presidential Election is as down to the wire as I suspect it will be. Reagan's command performance at those functions turned a close race into a complete landslide. The difference, however, between twenty-eight years ago and today is that the incumbent Democrat Carter was deeply unpopular, but voters were hesitant to exchange a known quantity for the risk involved in electing Reagan. Once assured that the standard-bearer of an opposing party could be trusted with the office of President, voters abandoned Carter wholesale. All Americans were looking for was an opportunity to feel comfortable ditching the current Chief Executive and starting a new course.

A strong performance in the debates would go far to shore up support and neutralize the nagging doubts in the minds of many voters about whether Senator Obama is up to the task. Whomever is elected certainly will have his work cut out for him. As I conclude, I am reminded of the words spoken by outgoing President James Buchanan when he passed over the reigns of command to incoming President Abraham Lincoln. "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning [home], you are a happy man."

1 comment:

Cee Jay said...

Well, if the debates turn out to be a snooze, we can always watch Jon Stewart and Colbert for a laugh. I think this election has given them a wealth of material. They are sure to find much to tickle the funny bone in the coming months.