Oct 16, 2008

Winner: the man with the matte personality

Last night's was the first debate I felt tempted to give to McCain. He had the best zinger of the night ("If you'd wanted to run against president Bush you should have run four years ago") and for the first twenty minutes he was vigorous, spirited, aggressive without being rude. Obama's unflappability, for once, seemed forced.

Then came the question about negative campaigning. "Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history" asserted McCain — by what inflation-resistant metric? — but the public weren't buying it. The CNN graph tanked at this point, never quite recovered. We were back with the needling, sarcastic, thin-skinned McCain of old. It was a big mistake to address the comments made by congressman John Lewis ("That, to me, was so hurtful."). Its never a good idea to try and wring an apology out of someone, and it left him open to Obama's sharpest jab of the night — about the public not caring about the hurt feelings of politicians.

I was most struck by Obama's ability to remove his ego from the room. I don't mean that he doesn't have an ego — of course he does — but that he has schooled himself, ruthlessly, in the art of removing his ego from proceedings, in the interests of getting things done/winning. It has given him a very fine instinct for when people are getting bored or irritated by politicians. Its quite something to rebut personal attacks, not because you want to set the record straight, but because you sense that people are simply not interested.

Think about how hard it is to do that. If someone attacks me, almost every cell in body is devoted to the task of rebuttal: Obama seems able to rise above it almost at will. And it's this egolessness is what makes him such a matte personality (and to some, flavorless) and such a superb communicator. Matthew Yglesias puts it well:
What Obama’s good at doing is redirecting conversations to things people care about. He’s good at conveying both with words and body language that when the subject shifts to something people don’t care about, that he’d rather be addressing the things people care about. He’d rather be talking about something else, but unlike McCain he’s not personally affronted that the other side criticizes him. It’s not about how he feels or what he wants but about what normal people want to hear about. By contrast, McCain’s key campaign theme is that McCain is awesome and that the government should spend less money, neither of which have anything to do with real problems in real people’s lives.

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