October 10, 2008

Presidential Debate 2008: Viewpoints columnists react

Matt Barnum, Claire McNear, Tim Murphy, and Marshall Knudson respond to the October 7 presidential debate.

“It was boring!” declared the pundits. (It was.) “John McCain looked old!” they added. (He did.)

These types of analyses are at once true and unhelpful. The implication is that if a debate lacks fantastic quips or fantastic gaffes then it’s worthless, useful only for a Saturday Night Live skit.

This is not true. Talking points may be tiresome, but they’re also important. With this mind, it’s worth considering one of Barack Obama’s favorite talking points.

“I think, for a lot of [middle-class] people who are listening here tonight is they don’t feel as if they are sharing the [financial] burden with other [more wealthy] folks,” Obama said.

Yes, thanks in part to you, Senator, a lot of people do feel that way.

But here’s where fact meets feeling: The Tax Foundation reports that, according to the latest numbers, the top one percent of income earners pay 22 percent of their income in taxes, compared to a 12-percent average rate. All in all, the top half, by income, is taxed at a rate of 13 percent, while the bottom half gives up only 3 percent.

If I had been one of those lucky, unattractive people who got a chance to ask Senator Obama a question on Tuesday, it would have been: “How do you define ‘sharing the burden?’”

—Matt Barnum

John McCain, I am not your friend. Twenty-two times during the debate, or an average of four times per appropriate clause, you tacked the words “my friends” on to either the beginning or the end of your sentences as you edged around the stage with frantic hand movements as though fighting some kind of miniature ninja. Your friendly tic can only mean two things: Either you are under the mistaken impression that I am your friend—which, you bitter old senator, I am not—or you weren’t talking to me.

I guess it would be understandable for you not to talk to me, given that I’m an absentee voter in California and my vote means about as much to you as the Culinary Institute of America means to Aramark. Maybe all this time I’ve been underestimating the depths to which your maverick-hood extends: You transcend “my fellow Americans” to neatly sort anyone within earshot into the two categories of friends and nonentities. Slipping in the polls? Nope! Not among my friends, and they’re the ones I’m talking to! Don’t like what you hear? That’s all right; I’m not talking to you anyway. Touché, Senator, touché.

—Claire McNear

What happened to Tom Brokaw?

Perhaps he was smarting from not being picked as John McCain’s treasury secretary, or maybe he was just cranky from having to spend his 60s working with Chris Matthews, but for whatever reason, it was Brokaw—and not Barack Obama or John McCain—who emerged from the auditorium in Nashville, TN, with his reputation most sorely damaged.

At various points throughout the night, Brokaw implored the two candidates to pay attention to the traffic lights that had been set up for the candidates’ convenience. Toward the end, when the two nominees began to engage each other directly for the first time, Brokaw jumped in to call a halt to the back-and-forth and revert to the agreed-upon rules.

The grandfatherly Brokaw once oozed gravitas like a Superfund site oozes toxic waste, but on Tuesday he just sounded petty and old. He even managed to interject himself into the post-debate handshake, instructing the two candidates to get out of the way of the teleprompter as he thanked the host institution, sounding like a good old boy chewing out the traffic. The only things missing were a lawn chair, a floppy hat, and a half-empty can of Schlitz.

—Tim Murphy

When your power starts to flee, you try to chase after it—but the spectacle of the chase just makes plain to onlookers that it’s a losing race. In this last debate, Obama really took the starch out of poor old John McCain, a one-time stud and a life-long winner. But the winning streak is over. Now he’s trying to catch some air with bizarre insinuations of his expertise that remind us more of his antiquity. McCain trumps up his battle readiness, now accusing Obama of confusing a strategy with a tactic, now attacking his rival for infidelity to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Half of the viewers were alienated by John’s mystifying terminological prepossession, the other half were turned off by the weird implications of beatifying Teddy Roosevelt and accusing the soft-spoken, even-keeled Obama of being loud.If anything, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for. But as if this weren’t enough, McCain really brought down the house with his bizarre assertion of esoteric knowledge: “I’ll get Osama bin Laden, my friends. I’ll get him. I know how to get him.” The final cries of a madman.

—Marshall Knudson