McCain’s debate dilemma

It was no secret that the McCain-Palin campaign was in trouble two weeks ago. With the elections looming, they were stagnant in the polls. The Palin boomlet was gone and she was increasingly seen as a liability, firing up the base but alienating pretty much everyone else. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign to solve the financial crisis was widely viewed as at best erratic and at worst a pathetic attempt to gain attention.

As was predicted by many observers, the campaign tried to turn things around by going nasty, attempting to paint Obama as the ‘Dangerous Other’, the person who is ‘not like us’. There were allegations by McCain and Palin that we don’t really know who he is, that Obama has mysterious past that is unexamined, and that he has perhaps secrets that he wants to conceal.

These kinds of vague suspicion dropping are meant to create a canvas onto which people can project their own fears and phantasms. And the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies and the third-tier pundit fringe in the media dutifully obliged. Obama is secretly a Muslim, Obama is an Arab, Obama is a terrorist (for some of the more deranged and ignorant, all three are equivalent), Obama is a radical, and so on. Of course, the fact that Obama is black was undoubtedly enough fire up the racist elements. .

Palin’s comment that Obama ‘does not see America like you and me’ and has been ‘palling around with terrorists’ was a particular low point, inciting some people to yell out ‘traitor’.

It is true that anybody in a crowd can shout out unpleasant things. It is the climate that the speaker sets up and how he or she responds that is significant. It is an unfortunate fact of life that it really does not take much talent to be a rabble-rouser. People have pent up latent hostilities and insecurities that they normally keep a lid on for fear of societal disapproval. But when a public figure seems to signal approval of such sentiments by silence and even encourages it in crowds, the top comes off and the hate spews out.

This is what we have seen in the last week or so. The response by the crowds at the rallies to this kind of incitement has been downright ugly, shouting epithets, and for many days McCain and Palin did not rebuke them.

But taking this low road does not seem to have worked. The polls have shown increasing levels of public disapproval of both of them, their support has dropped precipitously, and even their supporters in the establishment have voiced concern at the ugliness. Establishment conservatives are finding the campaign increasingly distasteful and counterproductive and are beginning to say so, further enraging the third-tier pundit brigade.

But even on this issue McCain is erratic. After a supporter at a rally last Monday asked McCain when he was ‘going to take the gloves off’ (i.e., be even more direct about these types of allegations) McCain responded to the delight of the crowd ‘How about tomorrow?” It seemed like was signaling that he was going to be on the attack at last Tuesday’s debate and no doubt many of his supporters tuned in hoping to see fireworks. Instead they saw a seemingly befuddled McCain whose main attack on Obama was that he supported an earmark request for a new projection system to replace the forty-year old one at the popular Adler planetarium.

This opened the door for the Obama campaign to gently taunt him and raise issues of cowardice. In an interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Obama expressed surprise that McCain had not said the things he says in rallies to his face. Biden also chimed in that in his neighborhood if you had something bad to say about someone, you said it to his face.

When Gibson later told McCain about Obama’s comments, McCain was clearly on the defensive and said that no one could accuse him of being a coward.

More recently, McCain has rebuked some of the people at some rallies who have raised these issues while at other times has repeated those insinuations, the switch sometimes occurring within the space of fifteen minutes. Then yesterday, McCain has again promised to be aggressive at tonight’s debate.

It seems like either he is not sure what to do or is trying to keep Obama off balance, not sure what to expect.

So which McCain is going to turn up at tonight’s debate? I am told that the format will be like the first, a more free-wheeling format that allows for more digressions and debate and allows the candidates to bring up issues not related to the questions.

His extremist supporters are expecting him to really sock it to Obama and if he doesn’t they are going to be disgruntled, to put it mildly. But history indicates that revealing a nasty side with personal attacks in these debates is a losing proposition.

On the other, the fact that the Obama camp is taunting him with insinuations of cowardice must rankle McCain who likes to portray himself as a hero. The fact that McCain has a volatile temper and flies into uncontrollable rages is well known, although not publicly seen on the campaign so far. The possibility that McCain might be goaded into losing control must be causing some concern to his campaign managers. There must also be the fear that the Obama camp is trying to get him to take the bait and personally attack because they have a response ready.

So while there is a global financial crisis, two wars underway, major problems with health care to be addressed, and large numbers of people losing their homes, what we have is a psychodrama, worthy of a TV show, as to who will win the debate mind game.

We can pretty much expect that the Obama we will see tonight is the same one we have seen all along: cool and cerebral. He is not going to fire anyone up but he is not going to make a fool of himself either.

But which McCain will show up? The sometimes confused grandpa figure, constantly talking about earmarks and how he is a maverick? Or the sneering, disdainful, and arrogant figure, the person who earned the nickname McNasty?

Stay tuned.

POST SCRIPT: Obama = Lisa?

And now a Simpsons metaphor for the candidates.


  1. says

    You have not been watching the rallies on TV if you think all they are is angry. The McCain and Palin rallies have been full of excitement. You probably would not know this because the only network that covers any of the McCain-Palin rallies is Fox News.

    The Sarah Palin rally yesterday was filled with “SARAH! SARAH!” cheers… it was full of “USA! USA!” cheers. This is a very positive thing… not negative and angry!

    Reading a newspaper article by the liberal media to draw a conclusion on the mood at rallies is irresponsible. I recommend turning on Fox News every once and a while so that you actually get fair reporting. They have been broadcasting live McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden rallies.

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