Style and Substance

What idiot decided that the narrative going into tomorrow night’s debate was going to be that the townhall format favored McCain? I’ve always thought that, like much around McCain’s public image, the townhall folksiness was more myth than reality, if you’re ever caught segments of them in real time you know McCain is very awkward in them, and last night certainly seemed to back that up. Where Obama was, stylisitcally, smooth, rehearsed, well versed, and under control, McCain was, well, McCain. His answers came too fast, his sentences were too disconnected, his voice was too sharp, his movements around the stage seemed awkward and aimless (I’ve seen more than one old man joke already). Excluding his “that one” moment, he still had a number of sentences that made little sense and were delivered in a sort of sharp, staccato, tongue.

On matters of substance, McCain did terribly. He prioritized “entitlement reform” (i.e. cutting social security and Medicare) ahead of energy and healthcare. On healthcare, McCain called it a “responsibility” while Obama came right out and called it a right, and the CNN focus group line on the bottom of my screen maxed out. He continues to give Obama an opening to talk tough on Osama bin Laden while McCain criticizes him for it. I don’t know what their internal numbers look like on this issue, but I can’t for the life of me understand why McCain’s advisers allow him to keep making this point. And Obama continues to look like a President when he talks and, especially, when he stands next to McCain, who looks increasingly like Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush; an aging veteran who knows he’s losing and doesn’t know what to do about it. Regardless of anything else that goes on, anytime Obama shows up next to McCain and looks acceptable as an option Obama comes out the winner, based on the electorate’s generic preferences.

Also, to make a point about moderation; more Gwen Ifill please. I know she took a lot of flack for the way she handled the Vice-Presidential debate, but I rather like that track. Call me crazy, but I think that debates are about the candidates, and the moderator ought to…moderate! Throw out topics, direct traffic on stage if you need to, keep things moving along, but other than that stay out of the way. I don’t need you to ask follow ups to every question, and I don’t need the moderator to get into a spat with a non-responsive candidate. If that’s the route they want to go, let them. It comes through just fine on television (it was clear to anyone watching that Sarah Palin wasn’t answering the questions and, by extension, didn’t know what she was talking about) and if nothing else, the opposing candidate, can always point out their opponents non-responsiveness if they think it’s beneficial.

On the other hand, when we start asking for heavy moderation, we get the kind of rank nonsense Tom Brokaw dished out last night. Constantly interrupting candidates in the middle of substantive answers on important questions in the name of time (and am I the only one who thought Obama was interrupted more often?), not allowing Obama to respond when McCain threw out a flurry of inaccurate statements, and just generally trying to get the camera on him and become part of the story. So, yes, give me Gwen Ifill any day, and let me pay attention to the people who want me to vote for them, not the celebrity-journalist with an insane sense of self-importance.