By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-15-08
Americans want to believe that debates elevate our candidates. As we anticipate each presidential debate, we resurrect the legend of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas nobly debating the great issues of the day in pre-Civil War Illinois. Television, that great modern mythmaking machine, feeds the grandiose expectations, even if the names of Lincoln and Douglas are rarely evoked. And the sets, drenched as they are in patriotic imagery, festooned as they are with eagles and banners, quite literally set the stage for the candidates to achieve political immortality. Of course, there is a counter “Gotcha” tradition of seeking the knockout blow, the cutting remark, the effective counter-jab. Modern debates have been defined more by quick thrusts of a sharp elbow than by sweeping visions of statesmen.
What seems so memorable about these three presidential debates in 2008 is that they were simply not memorable, neither grandiose nor cutting. It is hard to conceive of one central idea, one dramatic moment, one defining soundbite that will be replayed repeatedly – or even remembered. Moreover – and more disturbing for both candidates – the debates seemed to banish both candidates’ better selves. In four-and-a-half hours of debates, it was hard to detect many traces of Barack Obama the dreamer or John McCain the war hero.
By contrast, the national conventions – although often dismissed as anachronistic – allowed the two candidates to present themselves as they hope to be known, and remembered. John McCain ended his rather pedestrian Republican National Convention address with a moving memoir about how his years as a prisoner-of-war helped him discover community, nationalism, the reliance of one individual on another. It was hard to walk away from watching the speech without appreciating McCain’s heroism, humility, and humanity, whether or not you agreed with his policies.
Alas, during the debates, the heroism has been on hold. McCain has been – as he was most notably in this third debate – more prickly than patriotic, more choppy than smooth, more of a worried candidate in search of a persona and a strategy than a centered demigod who knows who he is and what he represents. In his opening remarks tonight, he chose yet again to bash Wall Street and Washington – without at all suggesting that Main Street Americans had also joined in the profligacy. Again and again, his remarks seemed more calculated for political advantage than motivated by a constructive patriotism.
Similarly, despite encouragement to be more down-to-earth and less lofty, Barack Obama delivered an acceptance address at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver that was dramatic enough to remind supporters of his extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention debut. The grand stadium setting, and the historic nature of his ascension as the first black major party nominee, created another “Yes We Can” moment in a near-miraculous and quite meteoric rise to the top of American society.
Unfortunately, the Barack Obama on display in the debates frequently seemed too sober to dream, too cool to be a poet, too programmed to inspire. To Obama’s good fortune, his calm served his cause – it made him look unruffled, reliable, presidential. But it suggested that if Obama wins, it will feel more like a victory by default than a clear, personal triumph or a mandate for much of anything. He has kept his more electrifying, inspirational self carefully bottled, preferring to let McCain – and the Republicans – stumble. His great achievement in the fall campaign has been his buoyancy, his professionalism, his steadiness. Americans are yearning, however, for some inspiration, some encouragement, some ebullience.
While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls. But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero. This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically.