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« Oh and by the way, which one's pink? | Main | A message from Bob »
Saturday
Sep272008

Obama v McCain: who won the first debate?

Well I didn't stay up till the wee hours to watch the debate, I caught up with it on CNN this morning. I had a boiled egg to go with it, and a nice cup of tea.

My gut feeling on presidential debates is that they tend to be about the 'presidential' and not about the 'debate'. There seems to be an almost platonic ideal of what a president should look like (or come across as) and the televised debates between candidates give the US public a chance to see how the candidates conform to that ideal.

This is not a good thing: it places personality over policies. When personality politics takes over, affable guys or gals with very bad ideas can end up in power. When you think about the 2004 US election, even with all his visible faults, and having conducted a disastrous war, George Bush looked and came across more like a 'typical' president than John Kerry (the fact that he actually was the president probably helped). Did that sway the election? Well, I think it certainly improved Bush's chances of winning.

This kind of silliness is not restricted to the US: it's fairly obvious that the Tories' good performance in the polls is due in no small part to the fact that David Cameron looks more like a PM, and is a better communicator, than Gordon Brown (although, policy-wise, Gordon hasn't made it easy for himself).

Anyway, back to the US presidential debate itself. Who won? Well, most right-wingers, I expect, will have agreed with what McCain had to say, and most left-liberals will have sympathised with Obama.

As with most elections, it all comes down to the floating voters - and here's where the "presidential ideal" comes in. If 'independent' or 'indecisive' voters cannot differentiate between the policies and content of the candidates (despite there being clear differences in the approaches of McCain and Obama), it probably means that they are going to look for the candidate who appears most presidential. Who was that?

Well, intriguingly, neither of the candidates looked hugely like a conventional president: we saw an old white guy and a young(ish) black guy slugging it out. This is possibly what makes this race so interesting: the parties have plumped for candidates who do not look like, and certainly don't talk like, the presidents of recent times. McCain comes across as a sort of friendly grand-dad, who will sit the voter on his knee and give him a boiled sweet, and Obama sounds like a toned-down version of Martin Luther King.

If neither of them looked quite like a president, the question becomes one of whom came closest. And, on balance, my answer is Obama. He looked slightly more presidential, slightly more authoritative than McCain. It's easier - in my mind at least - to imagine him giving a presidential address to the nation, or greeting foreign dignitaries in the Rose Garden.

Will this be enough, though, to win him the election? Let's see: there are still dirty tricks (Democrats are already going to court to try to stop Republicans from denying the vote to certain social groups) and possibly racism (are Americans prepared to elect a black man yet?) to overcome.

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