Elections '08 Presidential Race

You Just Don’t Understand


I realize I said I’d live blog the debate (and I will the next one, the V.P. debate) but, although I jotted down my usual rambling, minute-by-minute notes, I came to the conclusion that, the individual moments were not really the point.


As it turned out, I listened to the debate twice —–first on the radio, NPR, while driving back from UC Irvine. Then when I got home, I watched it again on CNN.

The difference was fascinating—and crucial.

(And I’m not just talking about those mesmerizing lines waving at the bottom of the TV screen, which supposedly measured the responses of Republicans, Democrats and undecideds. All that was weirdly distracting—and not in a good way–like when you’re visiting a friend in the hospital, and your eyes repeatedly stray over to watch the heart monitor. But, whatever. The wavy lines too were beside the point.)

Listening to the debate on the radio, I judged that Obama clearly won the first half (but in a tepid kind of way). But in the last half, he seemed to take some blows. There was, for example, the whole thing about whether Obama would or would not meet with Ahmadinajad. And, he didn’t defend himself well on the earmarks issue, either. (Hint to Barack: Next time, hit back. Harder.)

But watching the debate was a significantly different experience. Adding in the visual of the faces and the body language changed a great deal.

Take for example, the night’s catch phrase: You just don’t understand.

It was evident that McCain’s Rovian handlers worked hard to give their candidate a snappy phrase that would work the same magic as Ronald Reagan’s famous there you go again.

McCain’s chosen version was—as we all saw: What you just don’t understand…..

Yet, while Reagan’s ploy in his debates with then-president Jimmy Carter worked beautifully—because, when he said it, he seemed genial and paternal. Not at all….well…..mean.

McCain, in contrast, was condescending. At least that’s how it sounded on the radio.

But on TV, he was also derisive, clench-mouthed and angry–in a small, pinched kind of way. He looked like a man who was a fraction of an inch away from snapping.

It wasn’t a winning strategy.

Barack, as most of the pundits have said, was presidential and dignified—which was both the best and the still-needs-improvement part to his performance. We would have liked him to have slammed McCain far harder than he did on the economy, rather than being quite so….calm and measured. Obama also should have described the mess that the Bush folks and their Wall Street pals have made of this economy, in much stronger, more vivid terms. Some bolder statements on the bailout plan would have been nice too.

Instead he made, basically, the same four points that have already become conventional wisdom. (Oversight…..Any gains made must go back to American people…..No gigantic CEO salaries…..Help for hurting homeowners.)

Plus, he needed to allow himself one passionate, extremely human moment. Obama makes those emotional connections when he addresses big crowds. He needs to learn to do it when he squares off against McCain.

Nevertheless, Obama scored solidly on more issues than his opponent. On the economy, on taxes, on health care, renewable energy, the war in Iraq and so on.

Surely, McCain scored some points too. For instance, despite his stumble about Pakistan being a failed nation, pre-Musharraf, his description of the situation along the Afghani-Pakistani border was more grounded than Obama’s.

But none of that was the story of this debate. The real story was McCain’s moods. His twitches. His creepy, mirthless laugh, that was really more of a bully’s snigger. And most of all it was the repeated condescension and dismissal and derision of Obama—all of which only made McCain look petty, mean, and morally comprimised. Not strong. And certainly not one whom we would trust to lead us through perilous times.

“What Senator Obama just doesn’t understand….”

No, from what we saw at this first of three presidential debates, it is the good senator from Arizona who really, really doesn’t understand.

Friday night he made that unsettlingly evident.


(Photo by Paul J Richards, AFP)


  • From the look of all the polling so far, people didn’t much like McCain.

    If he doesn’t lighten up and come across as more likeable at least by the third debate, he has little chance of scoring the Viagra gig.

  • I like that description of McCain you used Celeste,
    “clench-mouthed and angry–in a small, pinched kind of way”,

    McCain always seems to comes off like “General Jack D. Ripper” (Dr. Stranglelove), who although a totally dedicated military man and soldier has trouble grasping more complex, intricate, situations and reacts to circumstance’s or predicaments based on his own rigid, inflexible military based precept’s

  • As someone else noted on a different thread, it would have been cool if Obama had responded to McCain’s repeated you don’t understand with Reagan’s there you go again.

  • Very well observed, Celeste. And noticing the difference between radio and TV is SO significant. Back in the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, people listening on the radio overwhelmingly agreed that Nixon had bested Kennedy. Add the visuals and the equation changed dramatically. Today, far fewer people–that is to say, no one not stuck in traffic–would be listening on the radio. And your observations about McCain’s mean-spirited expressions and body language are right on. PLUS he never once looked at Obama, despite Lehrer’s repeated urging that they speak directly to each other. (McCain also refused to call Obama Barack.) Obama’s conduct was far more dignified. The other striking visual: youth and fitness and composure and a gleam in the eye vs. age and sulkiness and a bulging cheek that never lets us forget that melanoma could return.

    I have to say I disagree with you and the pundits about McCain scoring points on foreign policy. These guys are not running to be general in charge of operations in the mideast. Policy, not a firsthand familiarity with the terrain over which battles may be fought, is what matters at the presidential level. Finally, I thought McCain’s repeated evocations of Gen. Petraeus–like his mentions of Ronnie Reagan–became silly and pathetic.

    Bottom line: do people actually judge for themselves or do they wait for the pundits to tell them what to think? At least on PBS there was no running rating system at the bottom!

  • McCain’s “You just don’t understand” mantra stood as a direct contradiction to his posture as a politician who successfully reaches across the aisle, implying, as it indeed does, an either/or mentality: “There’s Senator Obama’s side of the issue, and there’s my side, the correct side of the issue.”

  • We were on the road also, traversing our way to Joshua Tree for the weekend while tuning in station after station.

    On the radio, our first impression was that we were disappointed with both of their answers, which seemed to dodge the real question asked on the economy and priorities.

    In summary, we found McCain seemed more trustworthy on foreign affairs, while Obama was the leader in the economy, health-care and Main Street concerns.

    It will be interesting to view a replay on video, and see if our impression changes.

    I had hoped that McCain would have been the Maverick on the bailout and supported the alternative plan Insurance based plan.

    In any case I have called and emailed my congressman and senators recommending they support the alternative plan.

  • Pokey – I’m not sure McCain even understands exactly what the differences are between the various plans. He doesn’t seem like much of a policy guy at all. His silence in the Oval Office meeting, his generalizations during the debate and his assurance to Georgie S this morning that he’d support the package smack of a guy who wants to be there for the photo ops but is playing exactly zero leadership role. In fact, I trust that Obama – in his phone calls to Paulson, Dodd, Barney F., Harry and Nancy has probably had more impact on the dialogue than McCain ever will on this one.

    The thing that’s upsetting to me is that the USofA is increasingly looking more and more like one of those failing eastern cities where they make the black guy’s dream come true and he gets it dumped in his lap just as the bottom is falling out of revenue streams and physical and social infrastructure.

  • I’m not sure Obama has to defend himself on earmarks, although McCain tried to make him. There’s nothing wrong with earmarks if they’re transparent. I also think they’re a fact of life. The problem is saying one thing and doing another. Palin was for earmarks until she was against them. Obama’s not against them, just their abuse.

    Obama should hit back harder. We all want our candidate to bloddy the other. But there’s also something to be said for not taking all the bait all the time. As a parent you know that you have to pick your battles and that getting sidetracked is self-defeating. As part of a married couple, you know that acknowledging your other half is better than making them always wrong, even as everyone sometimes is. It seemed to me that Obama was very much the adult, which I admire. And yet, I, too, wanted him to land more frequent punches — maybe that says something about me — not that I think McCain would have listened because he bullied on when he needed to stop; he repeated dispproven stories about Obama as if they were new and nothing Obama said made him back off; he purposely tried to confuse people again with “preconditions” and “preparations” even after Obama explained. McCain is a child with his hands over his ears yelling at the other kids on the playground…he didn’t look at Obama … he’s the wrong man.

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