Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Ohio Debate

I like to preface my commentary on these so-called debates by pointing out that there is very little about them that actually resembles a debate. They are made for TV events that generally favor the questioners over the questioned. They are much better vehicles for the networks, reporters, and pundits than they are for the American people or the candidates.

The content of these events is irrelevant. The image that is presented via television is almost all that matters, especially after 20(!) have been conducted. Before I get into the specific of the content (because I am a wonky pundit in the end), I want to comment on the real communication offered during the one and a half hour "debate."

First, without the sound I thought Senator Clinton looked a bit out of control and looked to be shooting daggers at Senator Obama while he was speaking. She is definitely the "hot" candidate in this pairing (see: McLuhan's hot and cold media) while Obama is the "cool" candidate. For the purpose of clarification on this, the swing era of big band jazz was hot, while the Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" era was distinctly cool.

Working to her benefit was the light blue backdrop which was very flattering to her. Obama had a kind of red and blue gradated background, which works in terms of his ability to draw on Independents and Democrats on a highly symbolic level, but was less flattering to him than the light blue for Clinton. Obama, without the sound, looked a but antsy when Clinton was "filibustering" and made me think of the failure of Al Gore in his debate with George W. Bush in 2000. That said, I think without the sound, as the "cool" candidate Obama works much better on television. His expressions are much more controlled and dignified. His gestures are pointed, but always relaxed. Clinton has the problem with her "hot" facial expressions that distract from her notion of experience.

With the sound, Senator Clinton is almost always better in these debates from a control standpoint. She is forceful and isn't afraid to make pointed remarks, remarks with barbs. Obama's "cool" persona is a bit of a snooze in the debate format, but he can afford to be bland in this situation as he's the current frontrunner. Senator Clinton's "hot" facial expressions make a lot better impression when the passion of her voice accompanies them. Senator Obama's smooth voice helps his "cool" image. As McLuhan points out in his 1976 analysis of the Ford/Carter debate, Carter comes from a corporate culture, a Southern culture, and carries a corporate accent that appeals to younger voters. Ford came from a individualist, fragmented culture, which McLuhan attributes to Northern culture.

I think Senator Obama has a corporate quality in his voice that comes from his African-American socialization. There is a quality to the speech patterns and rhythms of African-American linguistics that can be heard in his voice, and that pattern has become familiar to Americans from the era of jazz, rock n' roll, and now hip hop and signals a kind of "with it" authenticity that works to his advantage. Senator Clinton's voice has very much a Northern intellectual pattern, which is very strong for her in communicating policy and providing solid, believable platforms. That works for her in this environment as the "cool" vocal patterns of Obama do in the large, arena environments.

As for the specific of the debate, I think the health care issue was largely a rehashing of prior commentary, and was a lot more interesting for the back and forth about the campaign trail than it was for the policy. In the end, it seemed silly. I would give that point to Obama because I think Senator Clinton looked a bit out of control and adversarial with Tim Russert, justified or not.

On the issue of NAFTA, I think Obama also came out ahead thanks to Tim Russert's grilling of Senator Clinton on her prior support for the trade agreement and his reading of her past remarks on the subject. Obama made a criticism and Russert backed him up, again, fairly or not. I think, however, in the end both candidates said the right thing about how to proceed going forward.

Obama also wins on the Iraq War and Senator Clinton's vote. That's not new. She has to walk very carefully on her criticisms of Obama on this point, and tried to score point by distorting his ideas on Pakistan. Obama did a great job spinning both points back on her and had a good line about her vote for the war as voting to drive a car into a ditch, even if she's voted to get it out since. His answer on Pakistan was also right on the money. The Bush Administration just killed a high level Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan with a precision strike, precisely what he said he's do months ago.

I thought Senator Clinton did a good job of deflecting the tax return issue, while Senator Obama was less successful in his wishy-washy answer on public financing in a general election. I also thought that Obama didn't handle the questions about Louis Farrakhan and the pastor at his church very effectively. I don't think either is an issue, for the record, and I think Tim Russert was trying to balance out his obvious "thing" for Hillary Clinton by sticking it to Obama once. It was weird and essentially beside the point, in my opinion, but Obama could have simply dismissed the whole thing outright by saying, "I don't think Mr. Farrakhan's endorsement is an issue as I reject the divisive things he's said in the past. I value my relationship with the Jewish community and hope as president to repair the relationship between African-Americans and the Jewish community. I will be a bridge between us rather than a barrier. Period." Instead, on his way to saying just that, he talked a bit in circles. The contemptible thing about the question is that the African-American community has struggled to be united for so long that any attempt for the white mainstream establishment to drive a wedge between African-Americans, even those as ideologically different as Obama and Farrakhan, should get a "shame on you."

The Russian/Kosovo discussion was interesting and I think it deserved more attention, but in Ohio I suppose it needed to take a backseat to the domestic issues. I call that a draw for lack of substantial discussion.

The close was telling. You'll decide who you thought won the wrap based on what you want in Washington. Clinton said she'll fight. She believes that a fighter is needed to combat a right wing/big business agenda in Washington. Obama campaigns on a uniter agenda that seeks to draw in people, change politics, and stop all the gridlock fighting that has led to a 25% approval rating for Congress. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on this, and I get the feeling that the vote so far has fallen specifically on this issue, to be honest. I think people are speaking with their votes that the fighting has been exhausting to our national spirit and something different has to be done. Again, you decide. Your vote will tell which idea wins out in the end.

1 comment:

mike's spot said...

Hey Mike

I missed the debate, did Clinton finally admit NAFTA was a terrible idea? That crap damn near ran my father out of a job, and cost a lot of Americans just that.

Improving the economy my eye. There's another relic from the last Clinton administration I don't want to relive.

I like your analysis better than Prof Levinson's (found here http://paullevinson.blogspot.com/2008/02/obama-shines-in-ohio-debate-clinton.html)
He's a bit too much for me on this stuff. Prof L I love ya, but I think your a bit too strong for the Dems on this campaign and aren't as objective as plugh (who also has a bias)

I guess that makes me the balance of this equation. . . .G-d I wish we could have come up with a better Independent/conservative.