The Great Debates

Be it resolved: John McCain’s proposal for a series of unmoderated debates with Barack Obama throughout the summer is “a great idea.” That’s what Obama called it, but others aren’t so sure. TNR ’s Noam Scheiber argues that free-for-all debates would help McCain overcome his inherent weaknesses against Obama:

They’ll draw big crowds and generate lots of buzz. They’ll help him get his message out for free. And, just by virtue of appearing frequently at Obama’s side and having a civil debate, they’ll make him look much more moderate than the Obama campaign wants him to look.

That may all be true. But it discounts what’s guaranteed to be a stark physical contrast: McCain’s shriveled firecracker standing next to Obama’s lanky coolness. Remember the 1960 presidential debates, when John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon less by out-arguing him than by out-dashing him. Nixon, still recovering from a leg injury, looked pale and gaunt; Kennedy was tan after campaigning in Southern California. Nixon, unfamiliar with the new medium, refused makeup and wore a suit that blended into the background. Kennedy, meanwhile, looked fit and telegenic. We’ve learned a few things since then about broadcast debates, but from an aesthetic perspective, “appearing frequently at Obama’s side” is just about the worst thing McCain can do.

Then there’s the mental factor. McCain has not performed particularly well in debates this past year. (As opposed to 2000, when he wiped the floor with Bush.) He tends to harp on points even after his opponent has parried them. (See his dogged (and incorrect) insistence at the Reagan Library debate that Mitt Romney had proposed timetables for withdrawal from Iraq.) And his best lines—such as his quip about missing Woodstock because he was “tied up at the time”—usually sound canned.

Obama isn’t about to win any debating medals. But in an unscripted setting, Obama is likely to be much quicker on his feet than McCain. And this goes to McCain’s biggest vulnerability: his age. Anything and everything McCain says will undergo a senility test. Even a whiff of marble loss, and it becomes news. Notice how Obama’s recent claim, ” I’ve been in 57 states ,” failed to catch on. You can bet that if McCain said that, pundits would cart him off to the retirement community. McCain’s people are hyperaware of this; see Mark Salter’s recent hissy over Obama’s claim that McCain was “losing his bearings.” What better setting for a geriatric moment than a series of unscripted debates? Then again, McCain could use these debates to prove the senility hawks wrong.