The Narrative on Last Night's Debate Starts to Settle In

This thing is going to spread and will be really bad for Johnny Drama, and I am loving it.

Put aside all the polling about who won last night, despite the fact it all pretty clearly leads towards Obama as the winner. If I was the McCain campaign, there is something else that would worry me. After the debate last night, I noted:

Someone should Lexis-nexis the 2000 post-debate coverage in which they chided Gore for his sighing. I remember a lot of talk about how the debates were a time to let voters decide what candidate they wanted in their house for the next four years and blah blah blah kill me now you inane loudmouths.

If we were to use the Al Gore criteria, John McCain got his ass kicked tonight. He was a cranky old SOB, scowling and ranting “You don’t understand” and generally just a dick. Folks on tv are calling it “vintage McCain.” Loosely translated, that means everyone knows he is a dick, they just can not say it on tv.

I am not sure if you all remember how bad the prevailing narrative was for Gore after the first debate, but it was devastating. An alert reader mailed in some samples:

By the time he got through rolling his eyes, heaving sighs every two minutes and interrupting Jim Lehrer constantly during the first presidential debate, Al Gore probably couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher on the strength of his personal charm. A good argument could be made that the game was lost right there. Among those who have admitted to preparing Gore for that catastrophe was former Clintonista Paul Begala, a man whose dramaturgic wisdom is probably bad enough to make him a future election night commentator.


The debate was especially important to Gore. Instant reaction to the first debate in Boston on Oct. 3 declared him the winner. Except that what people remembered wasn’t what he said, but how he exhaled. He tried to put the focus on the size of Bush’s tax cut; what people remembered were the sighs of Gore’s impatience. Round one: Bush by default.


But Mr. Bush’s biggest boost among married mothers might have come unwittingly from Mr. Gore. In a focus group of Democrats, Republicans and undecided voters assembled by ABC to watch the debate, the women deemed Mr. Gore obnoxious and arrogant.

All those sighs and eye rolls! Married women know those sighs all too well. They have heard them from their husbands and know they are meant as condescending putdowns.

You can lament that elections should be all about the issues, or you can accept the reality that this sort of stuff killed Gore. Bob Somerby still is furious about it. At any rate, it was sighs and eye-rolling in 2000, but in 2008 it will be anger, contempt, and the refusal to make eye contact.
John Cole, a recovered Republican, blogs at Balloon Juice.
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