Sep 30, 2008

What Senator Obama doesn't understand

“I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy... Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy... I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state.... What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a “stinking corpse,” and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments... He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.... Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand..."
It was the most notable verbal tic of the night: the number of times McCain resorted to saying Obama "didn't understand" a particular topic. The McCain camp, and the media, were touting these as direct strikes on his opponent, and yet CNN's focus-group graph took a plunge every time: the viewers didn't like it.

What did they know that the pundits didn't? Anyone who has ever been in an argument, knows that the last card you play, after your attempts to persuade and explain have all fallen flat, is the "you just don't understand" card. Children, especially, are very fond of it, although it lays them open to is to the parental response, "what do I not understand", at which point you face a choice: cough up or leave the room. You-just-don't-understand is the nuclear option of debating tactics, just a shade away from an actual tantrum: why won't you agree with me?

But Obama's definition of the difference between a tactic and a strategy was the correct one. Kissinger had said that negotiating without preconditions was a good idea. And Pakistan was not a failed state in 1999. Not only is it false to say that "everyone knows" this: you would not be able to find a single person who thinks this. Nor do you have to be an geopolitical expert to know McCain was blowing smoke. We've all been patronised by someone who knew less than us at some point in our lives. A boss or teacher who pulled rank unnesessarily or relied too much on a priori assertions of authority — asserting expertise rather demonstrating of it. Sooner or later, people want proof. The proof, in this case, was standing right next to McCain, looking and sounding like he understood more than enough.

My view of the debate in general: a tie, which translates as a win for Obama.

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