The Town Hall Debate: Teeing Off
Body language alone was almost enough to make Barack Obama the winner of the first presidential debate. Down in Oxford, John McCain seemed crabby and small. His tactic of not even looking at Obama – I hope it was just a tactic, not the real McCain – was so odd and inappropriate that it must have made people wonder about McCain’s temperament. He tried to belittle Obama and instead belittled himself.
Tonight in Nashville, McCain should be much more competitive in terms of the vibe he gives off. McCain likes the “town hall” format and is good at it. I could be wrong, but I doubt that intangibles such as body language will play a significant role this time. It seems to me that the focus, for a change, will be on substance – specifically, the economy. The financial crisis and the $700 billion bailout would be enough to concentrate voters’ minds on economic issues. Today’s 508-point fall of the Dow guarantees that money, or the lack thereof, will be on the minds of many of the citizens who get to ask tonight’s questions.
For Obama, the strategy is clear – link the financial chaos to the Republican philosophy of deregulation and laissez faire, and promise to restructure economic policy in ways that favor the middle class. For McCain, the way through the economic thicket is less obvious. He has to distance himself from George W. Bush without explicitly renouncing his own long-held economic views. He has to find a message on the economy that resonates with voters. He may have to explain his own less-than-serene reaction to the acute Wall Street crisis two weeks ago. And, oh yes it wouldn’t hurt if McCain occasionally looked Obama in the eye and maybe even smiled.
To use a metaphor that anyone who plays golf will understand, McCain will be standing on the tee with five or six swing thoughts in his head. As a general rule, the next thing that happens is: “Fore!”
| October 7, 2008; 8:22 PM ET
Categories: Robinson | Tags: Eugene Robinson
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