Playing political poker with the US presidential debate

September 27, 2008

At one point last night’s first televised US presidential debate became a “tale of two bracelets”. Senator John McCain spoke of how a mother of a slain US marine had given him her son’s bracelet and encouraged McCain to continue the war in Iraq so that her son and others like him had not died in vain.

“I will wear his bracelet with honour,” McCain said, raising his right hand to show the bracelet on his arm.
“I’ve got a bracelet, too,” replied Obama, recalling his own story of a Wisconsin mother who wanted other mothers to be spared the pain she had been through.

Now I don’t want to trivialise the losses that these families suffered but it did seem a bit like the two senators were engaged in a game of political poker.

“John, I’ll see your bracelet and raise you two dog-tags and an engraved ring.”
“I don’t think Senator Obama understands the gravity of the situation. I’m seeing his dog-tags and his ring and raising him one heartfelt poem which just happens to be from a swing-state veteran who has been my close friend for 35 years.”
Moderator: “Ok you two, break it up. We’ve got a debate to run here.”

On a more serious note, I thought that Obama needs to play more to his strengths. For example, Obama appeared to listen more attentively to his opponent (although frowning at times when he did so) and sought to make eye contact, something which McCain appeared to avoid.

The US political bloggers will do a much better job of analysing the ins-and-outs of the debate but one thing that Obama does well is to make people feel acknowledged and understood. I think it would be a good tactic (and just good practice) to show that respect a bit more. I thought Obama had the upper hand when he was speaking from a position of strength and acknowledged the contributions of his opponent. McCain supporters will be more likely to change their allegiance if they feel that Obama really respects their candidate. Remember the sighs of Al Gore when George W. Bush was speaking in the 2000 debate? Those were fatal to his chances. I think Obama does respect McCain and I would like to see him using that respect to neutralise some of McCain’s criticisms. It’s maybe not that important to debate the small stuff and to defend his voting record in the Senate. Obama needs to make people believe that he knows McCain and really respects him but that he is the better candidate to become the next US president.

Update: Found some interesting blog comments on the debate. Firstly Mother Jones and the Moderate Voice. Then a blogger called maxedoutmama provides a reminder (if one was needed) why we should be worried about the average US voter. Here’s her finishing comment (or zinger if you like):

Anyone who watched last night’s debate and can still consider voting for Obama loses my respect. There’s a limit to how far one can defy reality and live. That man is currently outside the parameters of the land of the living. It’s probably due to inexperience.

For some excellent and thoughtful comments read George Lakoff at the Huffington Post.