Saturday, September 27, 2008

Angry John

Couldn't get on the interwebs for most of the day -- I think my crappy Verizon modem is near the end of its useful life.

So, here's my debate story. I listened to the middle third of the debate in the car on the way home from my class, watched the end on TV, then saw the economic part when it reran on C-Span a little later.

Listening in the car I was struck first by how old McCain sounded on the radio, his S's sibilantly extended, almost shushing each S sound. Like his dentures were floating around in his mouth. Second, he was so angry towards Obama. He kept saying "What Senator Obama doesn't understand" to start his arguments, spitting out each word with disgust. But both McCain and Obama stated their positions clearly and I didn't feel either made any huge mistakes or gaffes.

Obama was his usual scholarly, measured, rational self. Other than the "You were wrong" series he directed at McCain's predictions about the Iraq war in 2003, he was very even and level, but in full command of the facts and details of every issue. Presidential.

In the car I heard the debate as fairly even. But when I watched it on TV and put together McCain's angry voice with his rigid body language and his refusal to look at Obama, I thought this gave Obama the upper hand. McCain's anger seemed out of place. Just like his saying "What Senator Obama doesn't understand" seemed very out of place. It was very clear that Obama did understand the issues involved, so McCain's saying he didn't understand didn't seem right. He was angry about something, but it wasn't clear to me -- or to the audience -- what McCain was so angry about.

I used to have a problem questioning witnesses that I thought were liars, because I'd jump all over the witness before the jury knew anything about them. The anger I felt was my conclusion from what I knew about that witness. I learned from many excellent teachers that I had to allow the jury to form their own conclusions -- by showing them the facts about the witness -- rather than show my conclusions which made no sense to the jury who knew nothing about the person.

Rather than come to the jury with my conclusion (Liar!), I had to show them the facts and let the jury decide the witness was lying. You could always tell when the conclusion had been reached. Someone in the box would snicker at a ludicrous answer, or raise an eyebrow. You could feel people in the jury box looking at you, leaning towards you, telegraphing to you: Go for it. Get him. And then you could get angry. Get arch. Let out the sarcasm. Let him have it. But until that point, you had to be polite. Excruciatingly polite.

Most of the undecided voter panels who watched the debates gave the advantage to Obama. I think this is why. No one likes angry people. Undecided people are people who don't really know anything about the issues at this point anyway -- if they did they'd have already picked a candidate -- so they're going to be much more swayed by the mannerisms of the candidates.

So why was McCain so angry? Partly it's just his personality. This is the guy who told that nasty joke about Chelsea Clinton, has said nasty things about his own wife, and more. But I think there's more to it than that.

Two theories from the 'net. One, McCain doesn't like Obama because Obama introduced ethics legislation two years ago & Mr. Reformer McCain was none too happy about that. Read this exchange of letters from February 2006.

Second, and I think this one is more plausible, is what happened at the White House on Thursday. Check out this passage from the Washington Post article today summarizing the bailout meeting at the White House:

Pelosi said Obama would speak for the Democrats. Though later he would pepper Paulson with questions, according to a Republican in the room, his initial point was brief: "We've got to get something done."

Bush turned to McCain, who joked, "The longer I am around here, the more I respect seniority." McCain then turned to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to speak first.

Boehner was blunt. The plan Paulson laid out would not win the support of the vast majority of House Republicans. It had been improved on the edges, with an oversight board and caps on the compensation of participating executives. But it had to be changed at the core. He did not mention the insurance alternative, but Democrats did. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pressed Boehner hard, asking him if he really intended to scrap the deal and start again.

No, Boehner replied, he just wanted his members to have a voice. Obama then jumped in to turn the question on his rival: "What do you think of the [insurance] plan, John?" he asked repeatedly. McCain did not answer.

One Republican in the room said it was clear that the Democrats came into the meeting with a "game plan" aimed at forcing McCain to choose between the administration and House Republicans. "They had taken McCain's request for a meeting and trumped it," said this source.

Congressional aides from both parties were standing in the lobby of the West Wing, unaware of the discord inside the Cabinet room, when McCain emerged alone, shook the hands of the Marines at the door and left. The aides were baffled. The plan had been for a bipartisan appearance before the media, featuring McCain, Obama and at least a firm statement in favor of intervention. Now, one of the leading men was gone.

I can see this infuriating McCain. McCain the gambler went all in by "suspending" his campaign and going to Washington. Obama called his bluff and made him show his cards.

That's where "What. Senator. Obama. Doesn't. Understand." came from. Pure anger. McCain played the big bluff and got called on it.


Burr Deming said...

McCain was indeed transparently angry. I think it goes beyond the debate or even the campaign.

John McCain suffered unimaginably in service to the rest of us. When his sacrifices are denigrated or ignored by those who never endured such treatment, his anger is understandable. I believe this instance is more revealing than the debate.

truth said...

That's an interesting theory as to McCain's constant anger. I guess that means he can be mad at the entire world, as there is a very small percentage of people who endured and survived torture. I'd love to see McCain have to meet with some of the prisoners the Bush Administration tortured in Iraq, Guantanamo and black sites around the world, which McCain approved, despite his constant claims to have opposed torture. See this article by Glenn Greenwald:

I still think the level of anger McCain demonstrated towards Obama in this debate had to have a more recent source.