Twenty-eight years ago, Ronald Reagan patiently waited his turn while Jimmy Carter verbally attacked him for about the 47th time and then, with a grin and a slight shake of his head, turned the 1980 election into a blowout with four simple words: “There you go again.”
Maybe Reagan would have won anyway without that immortal retort, but it stands as proof of how just the right delivery of just the right words at just the right time in a presidential debate can radically alter public opinion. Before the Carter-Reagan debate, the race was dead even. A week after it, Reagan won 44 states.
Barack Obama entered Friday’s debate with the same basic opportunity that Reagan had when he took the stage with Carter all those years ago. Like Reagan, who benefited from the high unemployment, double-digit inflation and interest rates, and protracted hostage crisis that destroyed American confidence and marred Carter’s presidency, Obama is running in a year tailor-made for his party. And like Reagan, he arrived at the first debate locked in a much closer race than all of those built-in advantages suggested he should be in.
But unlike Reagan, Obama didn’t turn in the kind of performance that figures to translate all of that potential support into real support – and to turn this contest into the rather lopsided affair that it really ought to be. Obama was competent, yes, and that counts for plenty – enough for most of the early reviewers on cable television to call the debate a draw. But his delivery was distractingly hesitant and halting at times, and at other times he was excessively passive and deferential toward John McCain. More to the point, McCain on several occasions presented inviting opportunities for Obama to deliver his own version of “there you go again” – but with a few notable exceptions, Obama resisted blunt confrontations with his opponent.
For example, toward the end of the debate, McCain returned to what had become his unofficial theme of the night, declaring that Obama doesn’t have “the knowledge and the experience” to be president and that he’s “made the wrong judgment in a number of areas.” Showing considerable chutzpah, McCain then invoked George W. Bush’s inflexibility and accused Obama of possessing similar traits because of his unwillingness to declare “the surge” a complete and total success.
It would have been a perfect opportunity for Obama to turn the tables on McCain and to connect the G.O.P. nominee to his single biggest liability – the Bush administration – and to the Bush administration’s most enduringly unpopular action – the invasion of Iraq. Obama could have itemized each major argument that was made by Bush and McCain for the invasion – all of them long-since discredited – and noted that McCain still refuses to acknowledge that Iraq was the wrong war to fight. Instead, though, he let McCain’s attack – and the Bush reference – pass.
Obama’s passivity showed itself at other points, too – like when he allowed McCain to interrupt him and to essentially steal his time in an exchange over Iran. Obama had actually made a compelling point on the subject, noting that Henry Kissinger, a McCain advisor, has endorsed discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials without preconditions – a concept that McCain has ridiculed Obama for favoring. What’s more, Obama had made this observation forcefully, his delivery clear and his voice full of self-assuredness.
Kissinger, Obama told McCain, “just said that we should meet with Iran – guess what? – without preconditions. This is one of your own advisers!”
McCain scoffed at this assertion and declared that Kissinger would never say such a thing. Actually, McCain said that Kissinger hadn’t endorsed a meeting between the U.S. and Iranian presidents without preconditions – which is true. But Obama wasn’t saying that he did; Obama’s argument is for direct contact between the governments, not necessarily or automatically at the presidential level. (As he pointed out, Iran’s president is far from the most powerful political figure in the country.)
Obama weakly tried to object, but McCain didn’t even pause, and Obama quickly relented. Then McCain segued into a bluntly emotional denunciation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian president’s frequent verbal assaults on Israel. By meeting with him, McCain intoned, “you legitimize those comments. This isn’t just naïve. It’s dangerous.”
Finally, McCain finished and Obama was offered a chance to reply. He tried to return to the Kissinger angle, and that’s when McCain interrupted him and began attacking the Kissinger claim even more aggressively. And once McCain started talking, he wouldn’t stop. A few times, Obama uttered a syllable or two in an effort to reclaim his time, but McCain just plowed ahead. Right here, Obama could have stolen the show by doing something out of character: Raising his voice and forcefully correcting McCain. Obama is often accused of being too cool, but this also guarantees that a display of heat will command attention. Obama can use this to his advantage, but he made no effort to – when McCain interrupted him on the Iran question or at any other point – on Friday night.
It is, of course, unfair to hold Obama to the Reagan ’80 standard. He lacks Reagan’s showman’s instincts and knack for one-liners, just as McCain presents a more forceful and nimble foe than Carter did.
And Obama did his share of attacking, too, like when he rebutted McCain’s effusive praise of the surge by saying, “John, you like to pretend the war started in 2007” and then ticking off the blustery pre-invasion pronouncements that McCain embraced that were never realized. And when McCain displayed the bracelet of a slain soldier that he wears at the request of the soldier’s mother (who, in McCain’s telling, instructed him to make sure that her son’s death wouldn’t be in vain), Obama was ready with an emotionally powerful response. Pointing to a bracelet that he wears at the request of another fallen soldier’s mother, Obama said that “she asked me, can you please make sure that another mother doesn’t go through what I’m going through?”
Maybe a draw is good enough for Obama. He was slightly ahead in the polls before the debate, and the worsening financial crisis seems to be worsening McCain’s standing. Plus, expectations weren’t too high for Obama. The debate was to focus mainly on foreign policy (even though the early questioning centered on the economy), which most voters see as McCain’s strong suit. That Obama could sound as competent as he did on international relations might have been a reassuring revelation to many viewers.
But it could have been better. A stronger, more focused and more sustained attack on McCain would probably move the polls more than Obama’s performance on Friday will.