The non-issue issue

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By Jeff Fecke • 9/27/08 • It seems that debates are won and lost of late not on the issues — the idea! — but on something meta, beneath the surface of the debate. In 2000, it was Gore sighing when Bush was behaving like an idiot. In 2004, it was Kerry correctly noting that Dick Cheney’s out lesbian daughter was lesbian. These were huge transgressions, far greater than anything actually said about substance, and these were the reasons that the press gave for giving Dubya victories.

This has not always cut against the Democrats, mind you; in 1992, it was George H.W. Bush looking at his watch during the town hall debate that caused people to sit up and take notice. And there was probably something in ‘96, though to be honest, that election was so boring that I have only a vague recollection of Bob Dole making an ad for Viagra, but I think that was after the election. I hope.

Anyhow, 2008 looks to be another year in which the meta narrative favors the Democrat. And that meta narrative is simple: John McCain is a jerk.

This is dominating much of the post-election talk. McCain wouldn’t look at Obama. Kept smirking. Sighing. Sucking in his lips. Flipping his papers angrily. Accusing Obama of “not understanding” basic points of foreign and domestic policy. We knew he didn’t want to be there. But he couldn’t keep his body language from signaling that he didn’t think Obama deserved to be there. As Marc Ambinder put it, “McCain did not filter himself, letting his frustration and contempt for Obama show; he wouldn’t let himself look at the challenger. He seemed to be channeling that famous Saturday Night Live skit featuring ‘Michael Dukakis’ who looks to the camera and says, ‘I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.’ Over and over, he adopted the pose of an impatient school teacher.”

Indeed, the McCain campaign tripped over itself to release a web ad — while the debate was going on! — criticizing Barack Obama for the sin of agreeing with John McCain. Which is…bad, I guess?

McCain was contemptuous and surly throughout the debate, he not only didn’t engage with Obama, he barely looked at him. It came across as disrespectful and supercilious, or perhaps a bit intimidated — but it certainly did not come across as presidential.

That’s the meta narrative today — that McCain was disrespectful, angry, bitter. And Obama was gracious. Yes, it would be nice if the media would instead focus on the fact that McCain distorted Obama’s record and prevaricated throughout the debate, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.