Not McCain’s night

If you were looking for political theater at last night’s presidential “debate,” you were sorely disappointed. And if you were a McCain supporter looking for the maverick to land a knock-out punch as I was, it was a double-dose of disappointment.

Style matters and McCain doesn’t have it

By Chris Ingram

If you were looking for political theater at last night’s presidential “debate,” you were sorely disappointed. And if you were a McCain supporter looking for the maverick to land a knock-out punch as I was, it was a double-dose of disappointment.

Simply put, McCain left his “A” game at the office. In failing to land the needed body-blow, Obama gets the win. And while Obama’s was a technical win, he did not perform poorly – particularly when it came to his communications style compared to McCain’s.

And therein, lays the reason McCain continues to struggle. Obama knows how to communicate and John McCain doesn’t. The subtle nuances of these two candidates’ very different communication styles don’t mean much individually, but collectively they make the maverick appear unpleasant and Obama more like the guy you’d like to sit down and have a beer with. Unfortunately in American politics, that’s what matters. It is why Bill Clinton beat George Bush in 1992 and it is why George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000 (with Katherine Harris’ help of course — as my Democrat friends like to remind me).

So where did McCain struggle? Where do we begin?

How about from the start when he told debate moderator Tom Brokaw “not you Tom” when asked whom he would pick as his Treasury secretary. The strange moment set the tone for the debate for McCain. I’m not sure if he stumbled or if he was trying to be funny (McCain is known for a dry sense of humor), but it was awkward. Let’s leave the comedy to Saturday Night Live, okay John?

McCain apparently skipped debate-prep class when they went over the first rule of debate: don’t give credibility to your opponent. McCain violated this rule in the first question when he answered Brokaw’s question about the Treasury secretary by suggesting someone like Warren Buffet (who supports Obama and a fact McCain volunteered) would have to be considered. Then he told the audience he would also consider someone like a CEO of a big important company. This, as Americans are really pissed off at CEOs of big important companies. That said company is e-bay doesn’t matter. Let’s try to leave talk about CEOs out of the picture unless you’re talking about throwing the CEOs of some banks in jail.

Obama answered the same question by referencing Buffet, but instead of focusing on process and politics,  he gave the voter an answer that provided some specifics, albeit limited.  Specifically, he said he would look to help the middle class by addressing flat wages and providing a tax cut and a Treasury secretary who supported these goals. Of course talk is cheap and anyone who believes Obama is going to cut taxes and control spending needs to get their head examined, but that is another story.

When asked by an audience member how the bailout is going to help average people, McCain again talked about the process and the politics instead of focusing on people. His blubbered response about greed and excess in D.C. and Wall Street, suspending his campaign, and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae being the “catalyst” for the current situation did nothing to explain what the bailout is going to do for the “average Joe.”  This was like a lot of McCain’s answers which were rambling, and full of platitudes and generalizations and sometimes rather hard to follow.

While McCain is a master at working an audience in the traditional “town hall” meeting format, this wasn’t a town hall meeting, it was a national television moment. Someone on McCain’s staff failed to give him the memo about who the real audience was here. Stylistically he struggled with all the moving around he did on stage. Trying to appear engaging is good, but not if it makes the TV audience wonder if you popped some uppers in the bathroom before the debate got started. So while in person he probably did better engaging the audience than Obama did, on TV, his moving around so much was a complete distraction. He had few moments where the camera focused on his face for more than a few seconds because he kept moving around and thus the camera angle kept changing every few seconds. This also made him look nervous and somewhat un-presidential. Obama on the other hand stayed relatively still and disciplined. From the moment when Nixon and Kennedy appeared on the first televised presidential debate to today, how you appear is more important than what you say.

Speaking of appearances, McCain’s choice of a red-striped “power tie” suggested something about him that he didn’t need. That being, “I’m tough and important.” Obama’s choice of a lavender tie said, “I’m confident in who I am” (and he probably read some poll showing that soccer moms dig lavender). Someone who spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton doesn’t need a red tie to prove anything, but wearing such a bold tie made McCain look like he did.

The words candidates use matter and I kept waiting for McCain to tell the audience that whenever Obama said “we have to make some investments” that what Obama really means is, he’s going to raise your taxes to pay for all this crap. Not only was I disappointed McCain didn’t do that, he turned around and used the same code word of the liberal left himself.

I watched the debate on ABC which provided a few minutes of commentary laid over a live shot of the candidates and audience after the debate. Both candidates shook hands and made small talk with Brokaw for a second, and then both men shook hands with audience members. But for whatever reason, McCain bolted the debate floor after about a minute (perhaps nature called), while Obama really worked the room seemingly shaking the hand and taking a photo with every audience member. More importantly, Obama got about two and half minutes of live national television coverage of himself mingling with “real people” with that million dollar smile on his face.

I don’t care how bad you’ve got to go wee-wee, if you don’t understand that running off stage and leaving the focus of the cameras and a national television audience to your opponent is a bad idea, you’re not going to win.

It’s sad, but true. Style matters more than substance in American politics. And Obama’s got the style.

Chris Ingram is the president and founder of 411 Communications a corporate and political communications firm, and publisher of Ingram is a frequent pundit on Fox News and CNN, and has written opinion columns for the Washington Times, UPI, Front Page Florida, and National Review online. E-mail him at:

8 thoughts on “Not McCain’s night”

  1. Chris,
    Again, you are being very fair, sticking to McCain’s style and words in the debate. You don’t veer off on an anti-Obama rant because of your own politcal views. I’m surprised, however, that you didn’t mention McCain’s biggest gaffe – his “that one” comment about Obama. This was condescending as hell and made McCain look like a huge jerk.


  2. In addition to the above, McCain also gave Obama a pat on the back and then wouldn’t shake his hand when Obama extended his, after the debate. Many have noticed the distaste he has for Obama. As you mentioned, his jokes were ill-received. He also used the phrase “my friends” no less than 15 or so times.

    More generally though, McCain sticks to distorting the truth about Obama and his record – and while this may work in TV advertisements, it doesn’t work when Obama is standing there and can refute the statements. McCain’s strategy is becoming transparent to the American public – for example, they’re tired of hearing him and Palin say “Obama is going to raise taxes!!!” when they know that is a distortion since Obama has repeatedly said that 95% of people will not see any increased taxes at all (disregarding whether or not politicians will follow up on what they say – you can hardly level this as a criticism against Obama and not at McCain or any politician at the same time, so it’s irrelevant). The way they should approach that is to say “Look, I’m going to cut taxes a smaller amount across the board, for X and Y reasons, while Obama will cut taxes more for people who make less money and will increase taxes for those making more than $250,000, for reason Z. You should vote based on which philosophy you agree with.” Instead, they take the low road (yes, which many/most politicians do).

    It’s a copout to say that the debate was upsetting because Obama has the style and a million-dollar smile – and insulting to infer that he has little or no substance. If you’re upset about McCain’s performance then be angry at him.


  3. Potter, he’s definetely seen better days. I think McCain’s problem is rooted in the fact that he chose to surround himself with Bushies as opposed to free-thinking people like himself.

    Jman, All I know is after 20+ yrs. working on campaigns, they all lie. I choose to believe no matter what, that a Republican is less likely to raise your taxes and piss away your hard earned money than a Democrat.

    As for Obama’s smile, that’s all he’s got. That and that he is a black man with a good command of the King’s English. There is no experience, and no substance to Obama. We should not entrust into someone who has done nothing more than be a US Senator for less than 4 yrs to be the leader of the free world. Bush had 8 yrs. as a governor — and even that wasn’t enough!


  4. Chris – Perhaps you’re right, and we’ll see in the next four years.

    On your last comment though, I have to say that if that is your argument, Sarah Palin is even less experienced than Obama (in addition to woefully failing to demonstrate…well, any redeeming qualities in my opinion). Can you trust her more than Obama to be the leader of the free world if McCain should develop more health problems? I think this is less of a ‘hypothetical situation’ than most people would like to admit. 🙂


  5. I would rather have Sarah Palin watching my back in a foxhole or at a table full of Washington, DC lobbyists than Barack Obama. I mean come on, if he weren’t the first black man who speaks proper English to run for president, (that is to say, if he were white and all his worldly experience consisted of being a community organizer and a state senator), the liberal media would have laughed him off stage at the beginning of Act 1. Obama is where he is because the power elites in the Democrat party wanted someone they felt could win. Obama was chosen for his charisma, not for his abilities, experience, or effectiveness as a leader. He has accomplished nothing other than being succesful at getting elected to public office. Having worked as a professional in politics for over 20 yrs. I can tell you all that shows is he’s got the gift of being a good bullshiter. Being a leader is about forging agreements and making tough choices — two things Obama has NEVER done.

    McCain for all his warts has done both his whole life.


  6. It’s not just style. McCain doesn’t have a lot to offer and he has to distance himself from the last 8 years. That’s tough given his philosophical ties to Bush. And I don’t get your enthusiasm for Palin. Although I’m an Obama supporter and Democrat, McCain is one Republican that I would consider for president if the maverick label was actually real. But McCain’s choice of Palin was so reckless I lost all respect of him. He didn’t want to choose her but he did what the party folks wanted. I always liked the fact the McCain isn’t very religious and that wing of the Republicans just put up with it. The thought of an anti-intellectual Evangelical Christian near the oval office scares me. And I hoped that McCain would have clearly demonstrated his independence but he didn’t. Furthermore, McCain and Palin on the campaign trail sickens me. She plays on the fears of her crowds by her insinuations and put-downs of Obama. If she’s so great, then she should stand up there and talk about specifics instead of spending her time putting down Obama and trashing the media. She’s so arrogant to think she doesn’t have to answer questions like ALL the candidates have had to do. Finally, saying that Obama has accomplished nothing is not a fair analysis. If you don’t like his policies and ideas that’s fine. But to belittle his accomplishments because you don’t really relate to them isn’t right.


  7. He has no accomplishments. That is the point. But more to the overall point, McCain needs to talk about issues that matter and remind voters his view is more like theirs than Obama.


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