Old age and guile will always overcome youth and skill.
That anonymous line is supposed to be a joke, but it's exactly what happened at Friday's presidential debate.
McCain used the simplest of speechmakers' tricks to out-communicate Obama. McCain remembered that the audience for debates isn't supposed to be policy wonks. He answered questions as if he'd been scripted by Readers Digest, while Obama played professor.
McCain belittled Obama, saying several times that Obama "doesn't seem to understand" the issue at hand--starting with the difference between tactics and strategy, a gratuitous insult.
McCain also managed not to look at Obama during the debate. He referred to Obama with the stiff "Senator Obama," rather than the more typical terms for politicians who disagree with each other, such as "my esteemed colleague," "my dear friend," or even as "Barak," while Obama himself first-named McCain.
McCain also reflected glory on himself by affixing the arcane phrase "the great" to the name of General Petraeus and a few leaders of the past in an attempt--it seems--to bring back the age of heroes.2 McCain, of course, is a war hero.
That curious rhetorical trick highlights why McCain is eager to escalate the two-front shooting war against terrorism, not only by throwing more money and troops at both Afghanistan and Iraq, but by adding a third front in Iran. Heroes are glorious; war makes heroes; therefore war is glorious. Do you understand the difference between rhetoric and logic, Senator?
McCain did well with such tactics in spite of Obama's more serious preparation. The Democratic candidate had blocked out three days to prepare for the debate2 while McCain was busy trying to put out two immediate campaign fires:
Lobbyist connections. The disclosure that McCain's campaign manager's firm had quite recently been getting $15,000 a month from Freddie Mac, and that the manager himself had himself received almost $2 million (ending in 2005) from a lobbying group set up by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.3
Unqualified VP candidate. A devastating television interview of Sarah Palin: CBS's Katie Couric, with just a few questions, had highlighted that Palin's views on foreign policy were more reminiscent of a bubbleheaded beauty queen than a vice presidential candidate (although Couric apparently failed to reveal Palin's mean streak).4
You'd think that smarter equals better. Not in this debate. Old age and rhetorical trickery made the better candidate seem like a mediocre choice.
1Doubt remains whether heroic behavior as a POW is a qualification for president.
2"First Debate Up in Air as McCain Steps Off the Trail," Elisabeth Bumiller and Jeff Zeleny, New York Times,
September 24, 2008
3"McCain Aide’s Firm Was Paid by Freddie Mac," Jackie Calmes and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, September 23, 2008.
4"A Question Reprised, but the Words Come None Too Easily for Palin," Alessandra Stanley, September 25, 2008. As for Palin's mean streak: For instance, besides trying to fire a state trooper who was in a custody battle with Palin's sister (elsewhere in this blog), Palin also supported--or at least didn't cancel--Wasilla's policy of forcing rape victims to pay for the evidence-gathering required to a pursue a criminal case against their attackers, as described in "Sarah Palin and the Rape Kits," Dorothy Samuels, September 25, 2008.