Reflections on the debates


Here’s an old joke:

There was this old man who had a favorite hunting story that he liked to tell over and over. Even though his friends and family had heard it many times, he was always looking for a suitable opportunity in any gathering to repeat it.

At one function, there was no break in the conversation that gave him the chance, so he took his walking stick and, when no one was looking, struck the ground hard with it, making a loud report.

In the startled silence that followed, he said “What’s that? A gun shot? Well, talking about guns . . .”

Ok, so it’s not a great joke. Not even a good one. I am terrible at telling jokes and don’t even remember them shortly after hearing them.

The point is that that old joke suddenly popped into my head during the Obama-McCain debate, when McCain took whatever opportunity he got to go on about earmarks. It seems like it is his favorite topic, something that he works into every speech and interview, delighting in the details.

He went on about the three million dollar earmark that Obama, as part of the Illinois delegation, had requested for an ‘overhead projector’, implying that this for something you find in any classroom and was a boondoggle. It was actually for a projector for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, to project the night sky onto the dome. It is the oldest planetarium in the US and whose current projector is forty years old. Those projectors are expensive.

But that was not my point. Sure, earmarks are not good budget practice. But they are not the worst things in the world. In fact, in the grand scheme of things within the US budget, they are rather small potatoes. If you get rid of every earmark, you would still have huge financial problems. McCain’s seems overly obsessed with them even as we are talking of trillion dollar bailouts and while he wants to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy people.

At some point, you begin to wonder whether McCain’s focus on earmarks is a way to avoid talking about real budgetary issues. It seems to have become a gimmick, a way to score cheap points.

The debate itself was a rather boring, I thought. The candidates pretty much rehashed the same things they have been saying for a long time. I didn’t think there was a clear winner but the snap polls all indicate that Obama won quite handily. (See here, here, and here.)

The format was awful. So far, only the first debate was a real debate. At times, both candidates seemed to want to break free of the rigid constraints and get more free-wheeling but the smug and self-important moderator Tom Brokaw (easily one of the most annoying people on network news, even worse than Gwen Ifill who moderated the vice presidential debate) kept reining them in, reminding them about the rules that had been agreed upon. His selection of questions was mediocre.

But if the candidates themselves wanted to change the rules in mid-debate, why shouldn’t they be allowed to? (There was a great episode in The West Wing when at the beginning of a presidential debate, just after the moderator had read all the detailed rules about time limits and no cross-talk and the like, the candidates decided to chuck them and simply talk back and forth. Too bad that only happens in fiction.)

One item that irritated me was McCain’s repeated claim that he knows how to get Bin Laden:

He has said this before, and at other times has also said that he knows how to end the war in Iraq. But if he does know how to do all these things, why has he not told President Bush? Surely, if he “puts country first” then he should have told Bush his secret plans a long time ago to get the country out of the current mess, rather than using it as a lure to get people to vote for him. What if he loses? Is he going to take his secret plans and sulk, refusing to share it with anybody, like a spoiled child? Why doesn’t someone question him on the ethics of keeping it secret? It reminded me of Nixon’s ‘secret’ plan to end the Vietnam war.

Meanwhile, last week, NBC news anchor Brian Williams and David Letterman had a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the campaign so far and the vice-presidential debate (except for some nonsense midway about how great Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert are):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Letterman made a good observation about Sarah Palin taking everyone by surprise with her opening “Can I call you Joe” remark to Biden as they were being introduced. I too thought it a little odd but put it down to a mere affectation. Letterman thinks that she did this in order to set up her planned line “Say it ain’t so, Joe” later in the debate. Since it has become clear that during the debate she was reading much of her responses from cue cards, that kind of set up for a ‘zinger’ would not surprise me.

POST SCRIPT: Train metaphor for candidates

One thing that struck me during the debate was that McCain looked and walked and talked like an old man. His allusions were dated. Some older people have an old-world style is graceful and charming and even reassuring. But McCain just comes across as out of touch and cranky.

electiontrains.jpg

(Thanks to a commenter at DailyKos.)

If you liked the train metaphor, then take a look at this one.

Comments

  1. Jared says

    Brian Williams kept talking about “Kennedy vs. Eisenhower”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Kennedy run against Nixon, not Eisenhower?

    The only guy that Eisenhower ran against was Adlai Stevenson.

  2. kural says

    Another annoying omission which might well lead to the best kept secret of this campaign is McCain’s mediocre knowledge, grasp, understanding, and command over international relations, military affairs, and foreign policy. Mano, I am sure you would understand this, since we are from the same neck of the woods – India and Sri Lanka respectively, where the English educated person gets to read newspapers that have some of the best foreign reportage that is to be had. Apart from that is the access to the resources of the British council and USIS libraries that most of us turn to as we did not have much to watch on TV those days. McCain’s gaffes on Iraq and the Sunni-Shia difference is already well known. Coming as we do from the 3rd World many of us have a realistic view of geopolitics and on any given day read far more than the typical American does about foreign affairs. During these 2 years of the campaign McCain has delivered no new insights on geopolitics, talked little or nothing about his interactions with foreign leaders, and clings to shop-worn lines that went out of fashion after the Reagan years. There is some background to this. McCain as a few who have read the recent article on him in Rolling Stone, was an arrogant, and mediocre student at the Naval Academy and was given chance after chance thanks to his family connections. As a a trainee aviator he made mistakes that but for his connections would have resulted in permanent grounding. On his return from Vietnam, despite all he did to wrangle a command post, he was kept out of the Naval War College, till some more levers pulled, got him in. Even after that the military found him unsuited for higher command and decided to keep him out of the higher leadership denying him the Admiral rank he so coveted and imagined his birthright. There are several contemporaries and juniors of McCain today in the forces who have gone far beyoond him in rank and are Generals and Admirals. That must rankle, which is why he is so keen on becoming President so that he can assume the charge of Commander-in-Chief, and probably lord over his imagined tormentors. Combat credentials are not as important as intellectual abilities for selection for higher leadership in the armed forces. For a man who has so closely identified himself with the military leadership, McCain’s intelectual output by no stretch can be compared with a Petraeus or Powell. Historians have drawn an analogy between the current Obama-McCain electoral campaign and the Lincoln-Davis/Lee led Civil War conflict. Lincoln proved to a be superior manager of his resources and an exceptional leader of his forces during the war, although it was Bobby Lee who was the combat veteran. Similarly this time Obama’s masterful campaign casts McCain disorganized efforts in a poor light. Which is probably why overseas troops are said to have contributed 6:1 to the Obama campaign compared to the McCain campaign, and new veterans have come out strongly in favour of Obama.

  3. kural says

    Another annoying omission which might well lead to the best kept secret of this campaign is McCain’s mediocre knowledge, grasp, understanding, and command over international relations, military affairs, and foreign policy. Mano, I am sure you would understand this, since we are from the same neck of the woods – India and Sri Lanka respectively, where the English educated person gets to read newspapers that have some of the best foreign reportage that is to be had. Apart from that is the access to the resources of the British council and USIS libraries that most of us turn to as we did not have much to watch on TV those days. McCain’s gaffes on Iraq and the Sunni-Shia difference is already well known. Coming as we do from the 3rd World many of us have a realistic view of geopolitics and on any given day read far more than the typical American does about foreign affairs. During these 2 years of the campaign McCain has delivered no new insights on geopolitics, talked little or nothing about his interactions with foreign leaders, and clings to shop-worn lines that went out of fashion after the Reagan years. There is some background to this. McCain as a few who have read the recent article on him in Rolling Stone, was an arrogant, and mediocre student at the Naval Academy and was given chance after chance thanks to his family connections. As a a trainee aviator he made mistakes that but for his connections would have resulted in permanent grounding. On his return from Vietnam, despite all he did to wrangle a command post, he was kept out of the Naval War College, till some more levers pulled, got him in. Even after that the military found him unsuited for higher command and decided to keep him out of the higher leadership denying him the Admiral rank he so coveted and imagined his birthright. There are several contemporaries and juniors of McCain today in the forces who have gone far beyoond him in rank and are Generals and Admirals. That must rankle, which is why he is so keen on becoming President so that he can assume the charge of Commander-in-Chief, and probably lord over his imagined tormentors. Combat credentials are not as important as intellectual abilities for selection for higher leadership in the armed forces. For a man who has so closely identified himself with the military leadership, McCain’s intelectual output by no stretch can be compared with a Petraeus or Powell. Historians have drawn an analogy between the current Obama-McCain electoral campaign and the Lincoln-Davis/Lee led Civil War conflict. Lincoln proved to a be superior manager of his resources and an exceptional leader of his forces during the war, although it was Bobby Lee who was the combat veteran. Similarly this time Obama’s masterful campaign casts McCain disorganized efforts in a poor light. Which is probably why overseas troops are said to have contributed 6:1 to the Obama campaign compared to the McCain campaign, and new veterans have come out strongly in favour of Obama.

  4. says

    McCain was frustrated and nervous. He’s obviously completely immersed in the lies his own campaign created about Obama. McCain was supposed to excel in the townhall debate format, but I don’t think walking up to everyone and calling them “my friend” is necessarily a special category.

    And for the train metaphor, I would have liked to see a picture of the Straight Talk Express with a flat tire–just like Obama said during the debate.

  5. says

    Your visual representation of the candidates to trains was hilarious, and completely accurate! The whole Republican ideology has no doubt become increasingly passe in it’s attempt to convince the mainstream that their interests are for all, and not just for the rich. What takes everything from the sublime to the ridiculous is how they use cheap attempts to grab voters through the use of placing somebody as inept as Palin on the ticket thinking that somehow it’ll equate to convincing women to swing to the right just because she’s a woman.

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