Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Previewing the Obama-McCain Debates

When the candidates face off this fall in the political version of reality TV's survivor shows, what are we likely to see?

The scripts are obvious--Change vs. Bush Three--as is the imagery, idealistic young guy vs. gritty old-timer. But many viewers will be making their choices on a subtext: Who makes them feel better--and safer?

On that score, both candidates have serious work to do. As David Brooks points out today, "Obama has to come up with a personal narrative voters can relate to. McCain needs to come up with a one-sentence description for why he represents a clean break and a compelling future."

TV debates, starting with the first, have always been more about music than words. While Kennedy was deploring a non-existent "missile gap" with the Russians and arguing with Nixon over defending Formosa from the Chinese, voters were seeing a confident Presidential-looking JFK and a shifty, uneasy Nixon (who famously rejected makeup and looked unshaven in the first outing).

McCain and Obama handlers are too sophisticated to allow visual gaffes, but the candidates' style and demeanor will be crucial.

Does Obama come across as a plausible game-changing new kind of political leader or a cocky, overeducated young African-American with con-man patter?

Will McCain look like a rock-solid patriotic President open to a new future or a grumpy old man holding on to outdated ideas?

They are both too deft to fall into stereotypes, but the debates will hinge on their performances as much as their platforms. Undecided voters will be sitting back and challenging them to show their true selves. What some psychologists call "emotional intelligence," the ability to connect viscerally with others, will be more crucial than brains or bombast.

Cynics may see that as putting on an act but, in the 21st century, it's always show time.

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