a funny thing happened on the way to the debate

‘Kay. Not much of a political writer here, don’t usually touch the stuff (didn’t when doing radio either) but this is a big important election (Most important one in my voting lifetime) and I had some strong reactions to the display.

Background: I like John McCain personally (or at least I think I would… he seems affable and funny and self-deprecating on The Daily Show). I may very well have voted for him eight years ago — based on what I knew of him them (had he ended up in a presidential debate I may have changed my mind). I am/was not necessarily a huge fan of Obama. There were other Democratic candidates in the running I like better (“who” is not important now) and I had some concerns about his experience and abilities, particularly in foreign policy and international relations (which I kicked myself for at the same time because idealistically we should have a populist government managed by citizens, not professional politicians – that’s how it was designed anyway). But as the field was essentially narrowed to two (fringe parties notwithstanding) what became important was really understanding the differences between these two.

And I’m not a dogmatic party follower, either. I’ve voted for Republicans for certain positions, I’m more fiscally conservative than some of my friends, but certainly more socially progressive than some. In many ways, I am almost (thought not quite) one of those “undecided” voters both these guys rightly have such a hard-on for.

There was one major distinction that really defined the candidates last night, and it wasn’t merely what they said.

Firstly, John McCain was adamant that the very act of “sitting across the table from someone” with whom you disagree “validates their point of view and their illegal acts” [this is my paraphrase but look it up]. He repeated this belief several times, and he derided Obama’s statements to the contrary. This alone is not the deal-maker, but read on.

Secondly, much was made of his body language… the fact that he refused to look Obama in the eye. Listening to the pundits afterward, some said that this was evidence of his “steely focus on the problem” and his “desire not to be distracted” — both ostensibly good things. Some said that it was because, psychologically, McCain needs to “demonize the other person, make them an enemy” to be able to muster and focus his challenge or attack; much, I suppose, like a boxer has to psych him/herself up for a bout.

Thirdly, his general demeanor was largely characterized as “cranky”, “angry”, “dismissive”, “disrespectful” of Obama.

Lastly, McCain’s impulsive decision to “suspend his campaign” to ride to the rescue of the delicate financial bailout negotiations in Washington, which most observers have characterized as unecessary and mere political grandstanding. Further, it’s been said that it illustrates his general tendency to “work best in crisis mode” and “to look for crisis to galvanize his resolve”.

Here’s what I think. I think they’re all symptoms of the same pathology. Acknowledging McCain’s comments about validating the enemy’s position by merely talking to them, one has to imagine that the last thing he wants to do is appear to validate any of Obama’s positions. Thus, though he was “forced to the same table” by the debate format, he did his best not to actually “engage” Obama, nor to “talk directly to him” (despite the fact that this was the agreed format for the event). I think he did this because he believes, as he said, that to do so is to “validate the opponent’s position”.

Much has also been made of Obama’s frequent “agreements” with McCain. Many are using this as fuel to say that “even Obama thinks McCain is right” (despite the fact that Obama generally used this as a gentlemanly way of respecting his opponent’s strategic position before clearly pointing out the places where he thinks McCain is tactically wrong).

This is an era of massive governmental failure on both sides of the aisle, and I think that most people agree (certainly both candidates state) that a bi-partisan approach to finding solutions is not just preferable but critical to digging our way out of our hole. Similarly, most agree (as do both candidates) that America’s position of respect in the world is compromised and steps must be taken to fix it.

What McCain demonstrated to me in the past two days is that he is mercurial and unpredictable in his decision making (particularly in regard to “crises”); that he will perhaps create crisis where there is none to focus his resolve or to appear presidential;  that he has difficulty engaging in meaningful discussion with those he disagrees with without demonizing them (and being cranky and disrespectful); that he is not comfortable talking with those who disagree with him because it forces him to consider the potential validity of ideas other than his own; that he struggles to acknowledge meaningfully the areas of agreement that he may have with colleagues “across the aisle”.

“Maverick”. “Anti-Miss Congeniality”. “The Sheriff”. He can wear these as badges of character all he wants but in the end, I think they’re merely code words for the guy who rides in on his high horse claiming to save the day, escalates tension to heighten crisis, disrupts productive discourse, becomes cranky and disrespectful when people aren’t in alignment with him, refuses to look people in the eye for fear of validating dissenting opinion, refuses to ackowledge areas of agreement for fear of looking weak, then says “people don’t like me because I think for myself”.

This is not going to be a skill set that serves the next President well domestically or internationally in his efforts to represent and protect me and my country.

What Obama demonstrated to me was quite the opposite; that he is even keeled and thoughtful, that he indeed has a “big picture” mentality that is grounded in the strategic; that he is interested in studying the past to learn from it and avoid its mistakes; and is willing to acknowledge points on which he agrees with others. He is well read, well informed; he is presidential, gentlemanly, respectful of differing opinions, and would work hard to bridge the aisle, find bi-partisan points of cooperation, listen carefully to dissent and negotiate fairly for compromise; and represent the country well in the international community while being willing to wield the big stick when necessary. This is precisely the skill set I believe our next President will need in the coming years to best represent and protect me and my country.

That’s what it said to me. Many may find they agree with McCain’s philosophy of dogmatic one-way communication and his apparent comfort with crisis. They like that he doesn’t seem to care what other people think about him (he’s no Miss Congeniality, remember) and sees himself as the lone “Sheriff” (as he was often called on the Hill). I’ve worked with people like that before; I don’t think it works, I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it’s what this country needs right now, because it would mean at its root another four years of the same philosophy that’s landed us right where we are.

So for me, it was no draw. It wasn’t even close. I expected to see more in McCain that I would like. I expected to see my concerns about Obama confirmed. And I didn’t expect that one debate would make my path at the poll clear. A funny thing happened on the way to the debate: Quite the opposite happened. I’m for this guy now… and I think if there was ever a critical election that required us to find the right guy, this is the one.

But you know what? If McCain is really your guy… not because he’s a hero (he is), not because he’s a maverik (a tagline as empty as “hope and change”), not because he chose a woman as his running mate (it’s about choosing a qualified running mate, not a woman), but because he really really represents the decision making, the philosophy, the plan that you want for this country, then vote for him and enjoy every second of it. I don’t believe there will be enough of you to put him into office.

By The Way — interesting that the John McCain website does not bring you to its primary index page, but rather forwards you to the “palin” page — http://www.johnmccain.com/palin.htm — John, you’re running for President, not Sarah. This just shows how desperately you’re depending on her to lift and guide your campaign… and that’s rapidly becoming a truly obvious mistake and a glaring example of capricious judgment.

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