Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kennedy-Nixon All Over Again?

I didn't watch the first presidential debate last night. I listened to it on the radio. And while I thought Barrack Obama won on points, John McCain came through as a reassuring elder statesman--a man who could soothe the public in spite of policies that promise to turn the current recession into a depression. (You don't slash government spending during a recession. By throwing more and more people out of work, such drastic cuts can cause a snowball effect. You don't tax employer-provided health insurance unless you want take away health benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans.)

But Kathleen watched the debate. McCain, she said, came off as an "angry old man." The latest polls seem to bear this out, with Obama perceived as the winner by a skight margin.

It reminds me of another presidential debate, exactly 48 years before yesterday's debate, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. I was eight years old in 1960, so I don't have clear memories of it at the time. But I've seen and heard recordings of the debates.

In the first debate, held September 26, 1960, most listeners perceived Nixon as the winner, while Kennedy was the clear victor with television viewers. Here's a summary from the Museum of Broadcast Communication:

... In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.

In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.

I wish Obama had sounded less professorial ("He was a professor," Kathleen reminded me.) and McCain less reassuring. But if McCain came off as an angry old man on the small screen, he may just be 1960 Nixon Redux.

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

From what I understand, people decide who won a debate by who they were already going to vote for. In other words, it doesn't do much.

Lisa said...

I disagree with Charles. I think there are a lot more votes up for grabs this time around than there typically are. I think there are a lot of Independents and I think there are a lot of disenfranchised Republicans and I think the Sarah Palin factor was initially a plus for McCain in his base, but I think she's turned into a liability now that people have seen her interviewed.

I thought the debate started out wildly all over the map regarding the economy, but I think it was clear that McCain is sticking to his guns about cutting taxes and in light of the potential for a $700B bailout package, it made no sense to me for him not to concede that cuts may not be possible. And beating the drum over $18B in earmarks is still a fairly weak approach to the magnitude of the problem we have. I also noticed that he never responded when Obama pointed out that McCain plans to tax healthcare benefits.

I was also surprised that Obama pretty much stuck to his economic story, but he did concede that he may not be able to tackle as many programs as he'd like to because of the bail out.

I'm usually most focused on foreign affairs and certainly McCain has a huge advantage in his ability to assure people that he's got a great deal of experience in this area. On the other hand, I felt like McCain still has very much a 20th century, Cold War approach to foreign affairs.

I think Obama, despite his lack of experience outside the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a much more relevant approach and a more diplomacy centered approach. I appreciated that he mentioned 2-3 times (and McCain never mentioned) that it is critical that we restore relationships and the perception of the US around the world.

I don't think McCain's demeanor helped him. I think his reluctance to look at Obama, his smirking and his repetition of "Senator Obama doesn't understand" or referring to Obama as naive when they disagreed was condescending, although I don't know how others may have responded.

Obama has a communication problem that I can't quite put my finger on. I've read his blueprint, his second book and I'm halfway through his first, so I am confident that he understands the issues very well and I like his plans (most of them anyway), but he has a problem communicating what he knows in a way that people unfamiliar with the issues can understand, I think.

I also read a very interesting blog post at The Atlantic.com this morning regarding the caution Obama needs to exercise in how aggressive he appears. There is the issue of race, which is much bigger I believe than I think we'd like to believe and I think he has to be careful not to come across as an "angry black man" because it's possible and even likely he could alienate some voters who are on the fence.

I was surprised at how much the polls favored Obama since I thought it was fairly even. I suppose it all depends on what you wanted to see.

Lisa said...

Oh, and one last thing. I was pleased to see that the polls indicated a preference for Obama's approach to Iraq. The difference between the two candidates being that McCain does not favor a timeline for withdrawal and Obama does. There was a great interview with General Petreus recently in The New Yorker (available on line and VERY long) and the details of why things have somewhat stabilized there are much clearer in there. Primarily, it's due to payoffs to tribal factions and it's due to a decision of a tribal faction (I can't recall whether it was Sunni or Shia) to cease attacks in a particularly violent region. Petreus doesn't want a timeline, primarily because it takes the military's flexibility away and the inclination of violent factions to take advantage of that withdrawal -- which is inevitable. The only possible "victory" (this is me now, not Petreus) is a well oiled democratic state and clearly that isn't happening anytime soon. I think the $10B per month cost of continuing to police this country is going to be something more Americans will be reluctant to continue to pay on top of the impending bailout.

steve said...

Charles--in most cases, I think you're right. Walter Mondale left Reagan stunned in the first debate and held his own in the subsequent ones, but Reagan won in a landslide. This time, I think, we've got a different situation. There are still enough undecideds in this contest to throw it either way. That's why I was worried about McCain's reassuring voice.

Lisa--I read this morning that Kathleen Parker called on Palin to resign from the ticket. She's a very influential conservative columnist. For Palin to resign, though, would put an even greater cloud over McCain's judgment. She would become McCain's Tom Eagleton.

I think you're right about the communication problem. That's what I was trying to get at when I said he sounded too professorial. I don't think he has a problem in his books--I've listened to the audio version of his second book--but in his extemporaneous speaking.

The whole race issue is so complicated. Obama is a true African-American, rather than a black American. His father was from Africa. He grew up mainly in multicultural Hawaii and Indonesia. He can empathize with the sufferings of black Americns, but he has not experienced them to the extent that most black Americans have. I suspect that this background made him more palatable to many whites, while causing some blacks to believe he wasn't "black enough."

The Rev. Wright episode had the effect of alienating some whites while consolidating his support among blacks. Until then, the "angry black man" label hardly came up. Obama had been the symbol of a new multiracial, multicultural America. I suppose that scares some people more than the label "black." To me, his mixed-race heritage is a plus, an it represents the future of America. (Whether that's the view of most voters, I don't know.)

Tea N. Crumpet said...

I'll be so glad when this is over.

steve said...

tea, you're just not a political junkie. I got started early. In 1956, at the age of four, I was just learning to read simple words. I read "I Like Ike" on a button somebody was wearing, and learned that my parents didn't like him--they were for somebody named Stevenson.

twoblueday said...

I still wonder why they refer to those phony tv things as "debates."

My thought: being a good "debater" has nothing to do at all with whether someone will do a good job in public office. Nothing.

Virtual Voyage said...

That old Nixon footage turns up frequently here as an example of how people are swayed by spin doctors and media makeovers nowadays.

What we're seeing of the US scene on the politics/recession front looks pretty dire in the immediate, whoever gets in - and we get the tail end of the hurricane?!

steve said...

Gerry--They're nothing like the the Lincoln-Douglas debates, that's for sure. But better than nothing. It appears that the McCain camp is threatening to pull out of the vice presidential debates, using the excuse that moderator Gwen Ifill would not be objective. It's either a way to give Sarah Palin an out or to try to intimidate Ifill into not asking difficult questions.

Julie--It's a classic moment, that's for sure. I'm not sure how well most American politicians would do if they had to submit to Question Time in Parliament.

Ropi said...

I saw some parts of the debate and none of the candidates were disciplined in the sense that they stopped each other while they were talking.

Elizabeth said...

Wow. Great blog and great discussions. I'm glad to visit and will regularly. Gotta love, too, your title with the Bob Dylan quotes.

steve said...

Ropi--Part of the problem was the format, which was not conducive to a real discussion. Strangely enough, the Biden-Palin debate format worked a little better, for what I saw of the debate.

Elizabeth--Thank you and welcome. I started the blog at a poing in my life when I was living in Philadelphia and my wife was in Indiana. To get back and forth, I rode the Capitol Limited, which snakes its way through the Alleghenies following the river valleys. And I thought of the Bob Dylan line as well as the Flanders and Swann song.