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The Second Presidential Debate: McCain Plays Singles Hitter When Grand Slam is Needed

–Richard E. Vatz

It’s two outs, bottom of the ninth; home team trailing by 3; bases are loaded; and the losing team lines up singles hitters.

To add to this and produce a mixed metaphor, the visiting team plays prevent defense and secures the victory.

With each passing week, candidate support gets more stable and changing the direction of the election gets more difficult, but you cannot overcome your opponent’s lead without some risk – the second Presidential Debate was a risk-free debate.

On economic issues, Sen. John McCain said that he supported more restrictions on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae when Obama was doing nothing. Sen. Obama countered that when he said during the campaign that we have to re-regulate, Sen. McCain opposed his position. Issue was then unceremoniously dropped.

Repeatedly, Sen. Obama implied that the goals of Sen. McCain and himself were nearly identical and only the means to reach them were different – the old rhetorical strategy first used by Vice President Richard Nixon in his losing battle with Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960. It didn’t work for Vice President Nixon because JFK was coming on strong in a country that was looking for new, young leadership. In this debate the strategy served to counter any strong implication by Sen. McCain that Sen. Obama was dangerous.

The issue of seeking new energy sources? Sen. Obama implied he supported more drilling – not as extensively as Sen. McCain, but more drilling nonetheless. Sen. McCain didn’t press the issue. Health and entitlement issues didn’t reveal any great differences either; certainly nothing that would lead to major voting decision changes.

The significant “surge” difference that Obama has not be able to effectively answer in the presidential campaign — that Sen. McCain was right when he supported it, and Sen. Obama was wrong when he opposed it? Sen. McCain mentioned it; Obama ignored it; and it went away.

The newly salient campaign issue of Sen. Obama’s lengthier-than-previously-admitted association with the terrorist, felonious couple of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn? Never came up.

Some of the insipid questions (“How can we trust either of you with our money”) provided little opportunity for differentiating the candidates, but if your boxing opponent (sorry, sports is on my mind) consistently clinches, you have to make more of a fight of it.

One could call the debate a tie on substance and style – at least for this writer, on the latter neither offends, although Sen. McCain’s “my friends” gets a bit grating, even to a supporter such as I. But as the Obama lead solidifies, Sen. McCain needed to take control of this debate, take a chance or two, and dare to offend.

He did not, and it is difficult to see how Sen. John McCain can win the election at this time.

Professor Vatz teaches Political Rhetoric at Towson University






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