Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Primates' Debates, '96 and '08

All the talk of McCain's refusal to make eye contact last night takes me back to Maureen Dowd on Clinton v. Dole, 1996. Was Dowd the first to frame a Presidential debate as a contest of primate primacy?

There was a moment, in the San Diego debate, when Bob Dole actually looked as if he wanted to run and hide behind Jim Lehrer's chair.

All night, Bill Clinton had been playing alpha male, throwing gorilla dust at Mr. Dole, hoping to distract his opponent from attacking on character and ethics. In a campaign that choreographs every move for maximum public approval, right down to body language, Mr. Clinton was following his strategists' in-your-face script: You lookin' at me, Bobster? Come over here and say that.

The President kept sidling out from behind his lectern, bearing down on Bob Dole and looking as if he were getting ready to give him a good clip from the side.

Answering a question on welfare, Mr. Clinton crowded poor Mr. Dole so much that the Republican backed away from his own lectern, apologetically murmuring, ''I'm going to get out of your way here.'' [snip]

The Dole camp had hoped its man could get the President to lose his temper. But it was Bill Clinton, the man of many faces, who unnerved Bob Dole. Behind that smarmy, feel-your-pain game face, the big fella looked menacing.
At first blush, there was no such obvious dominance play in the Obama-McCain contest last night. But compare a couple of professionally informed reader comments cited by Josh Marshall:
I think people really are missing the point about McCain's failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear--look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior--low ranking monkeys don't look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.
and
As a psychotherapist and someone who treats people with anger management problems, we typically try to educate people that anger is often an emotion that masks other emotions. I think it's significant that McCain didn't make much, if any, eye contact because it suggests one of two things to me; he doesn't want to make eye contact because he is prone to losing control of his emotions if he deals directly with the other person, or, his anger masks fear and the eye contact may increase or substantiate the fear.
Wishful thinking from Democrats? Not according to the fact-based post-mortem of Nate Silver on FiveThirtyEight:
TPM has the internals of the CNN poll of debate-watchers, which had Obama winning overall by a margin of 51-38. The poll suggests that Obama is opening up a gap on connectedness, while closing a gap on readiness.

Specifically, by a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was “more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you”....Obama’s eye contact was directly with the camera, i.e. the voters at home. McCain seemed to be speaking literally to the people in the room in Mississippi, but figuratively to the punditry.

Meanwhile, voters thought that Obama “seemed to be the stronger leader” by a 49-43 margin, reversing a traditional area of McCain strength. And voters thought that the candidates were equally likely to be able to handle the job of president if elected.

This is not to suggest that Obama pulled an Alpha Gorilla Dance a la Clinton. His mastery was subtler. He looked at McCain. He addressed McCain by name. And he responded with direct effective rebuttals to what McCain was saying, rather than relying on canned political talking points. Not to mention that he showed a superior strategic grasp of where we've gone and where we need to go.

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