Sunday, September 28, 2008

MAUREEN DOWD: Sound, but No Fury


The first debate seemed like the perfect moment for Barack Obama to re-enact the Code Red courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men,” to slide under John McCain’s skin and irritate until he goaded McCain into doing exactly what he really wanted to do: tell off the whippersnapper who’d never bled for his country.

It would have been easy for smarty-pants Obama to get in the face of the temperamental older guy, just as Tom Cruise did with Jack Nicholson, to push him into erupting into some version of that climactic speech, like, “Deep down, in places you don’t talk about at your fancy faculty club, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

The timing was ideal. McCain was so aggressively erratic as he did his free-form break dance around the economy last week that it seemed the only possible explanation was that he was creating a wild diversion to distract people from Sarah Palin’s stunningly junior varsity appearance with Katie Couric.

Once Garbo began to speak, and people realized that Palin had a few key lacunae in her understanding of the globe and even of her running mate’s record, the myth of the Alaska superwoman continued to unravel.

Between her nonsensical answers and his complicity in the deregulation that led to the financial catastrophe, he felt he needed to take another crazy gamble.

So he theatrically suspended his campaign and rushed back to get in the way of a bipartisan solution to the economic turmoil. When the two macho guys of the Republican Party — W. and McCain — took extreme measures not to look emasculated, they ended up emasculating themselves.

The president, who is so insecure that he could only choose a vice president he knew would never hold his title, and so insecure that he needs proof of presidency emblazoned everywhere, even riding a Trek bike with the presidential seal affixed, was suddenly faced with his bête noire: sitting at a table in the White House with the two men who want his job, either of whom would do a better job, given that nearly everyone in the country thinks things are going horribly.

McCain lost control of his campaign and then, in a gimmicky attempt to gain back ground, ended up in the Cabinet Room with W. when the bipartisan economic meeting collapsed in a humiliating nondeal, causing President Bush to lose control of his White House.

It was quite a memorable moment in history for the M.B.A. president and the nominee of the party of business. Who would have dreamed that when socialism finally came to the U.S.A. it would be brought not by Bolsheviks in blue jeans but Wall Street bankers in Gucci loafers?

The Republicans had a lot to answer for. The Bush administration had been warned about Osama bin Laden attacking and did nothing. It had been warned that there would be a civil war and insurgency if it attacked Iraq. It had been warned that Katrina was coming. It had been warned that the country’s financial casinos were courting disaster.

W. biked through all those eves of destruction.

Given the past week, the debate should have been a cinch for Obama. But, just as in the primaries, he willfully refuses to accept what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines.

Even when McCain sneered, “I don’t need any on-the-job training, I’m ready to go at it right now,” Obama didn’t directly respond, but veered off into a story about his father being from Kenya and how he got his name. (Thanks, Barack, we got that from your book. It’s great for a memoir, but not a debate.)

McCain kept painting Obama as naïve, and dangerous, insisting that he “doesn’t quite understand or doesn’t get it.”

Obama should have responded “Senator, I understand perfectly, I’m just saying you’re wrong.”

On the surge, he could have said that McCain was the arsonist who wanted to be praised for the great job he’s doing putting out the fire he started.

When Obama took quiet umbrage at McCain’s attack about troop-funding, he could have pounded the lectern and said with real anger: “John, I am sick and tired of you suggesting that I would take funds away from our brave soldiers. I no more voted for that than you did when you voted against our funding proposals that would have imposed a timetable. And unlike you, I did not vote against funding increases for the troops that have come home with devastating physical and mental injuries.”

And who cares what Henry Kissinger thinks? He was wrong 35 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Obama did a poor job of getting under McCain’s skin. Or maybe McCain did an exceptional job of not letting Obama get under his skin. McCain nattered about earmarks and Obama ran out of gas.

We’re left waiting for a knockout debate. On to Palin-Biden.

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