Monday, September 29, 2008


The Debate: The All-Important Grumpiness Factor

Here’s the politically incorrect way of phrasing one of the central questions about tonight’s presidential debate: Did John McCain come across as too much of a grumpy old man?

That might not be a nice question, but it’s an important one. Americans like to vote for the nice guy, not the grumbling prophet of doom. Throughout the 90-minute debate, McCain seemed contemptuous of Obama. He wouldn’t look at him. He tried to belittle him whenever possible -- how many times did he work “Senator Obama just doesn’t understand” into his answers? His body language was closed, defensive, tense. McCain certainly succeeded in proving that he can be aggressive, but the aggression came with a smirk and a sneer.

In terms of substance, there were no knockout blows. (I hate using the prizefight metaphor, which is the oldest cliché in the world, but unfortunately it’s the only metaphor approved for journalistic use in connection with a presidential debate. I don’t write the rules.) Both candidates got in numerous good lines and a couple of real zingers. McCain managed to cross the dangerous terrain of economic policy without suffering grievous harm, and Obama managed to surmount the foreign-policy toughness threshold. Voters who were leaning toward one or the other but wanted reassurance probably found it.

But we in the commentariat tend to forget that the electorate always, and I mean always, sees a presidential debate very differently from the way we see it. If you read the papers in the fall of 2000, for example, you learned that Al Gore wiped the floor with George Bush in their encounters -- but voters thought otherwise. Demeanor and body language have been important in every debate I can think of, so I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be important in this one. The candidate who projects affability and optimism is usually seen to have bettered the candidate who projects resentment and gloom. If that is the case with tonight’s debate, Obama won and McCain lost.

By Eugene Robinson | September 26, 2008; 11:25 PM ET | Category: Robinson
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The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.

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