Last night’s Obama-McCain Presidential debate was devoid of surprises. Even Russia had a place. Given “Russia’s resurgence” as they like to say in the news, it becoming a brief focus of the debate isn’t even novel. Before getting to that here of some of my general impressions about last night’s performance.
I’ve struggled to come up with one word to describe this performance and the only one I could come up with was: Boring. I watched the CNN telecast, and the network must have known that boredom would be a factor. They tried to spice things up by plopping on screen their analysts scorecards and a meter at the bottom to register Democrat, Republican, and Independent “real-time” reactions (I’m struck how Independent has attained a discursive function similar the Soviet class category “Прочий” or “Other”).
In fact, it seems that “real time” was marketing tactic since the CNN pregame repeatedly reminded viewers that they could participate by giving their reactions in “real time” on the network’s website. That’s democracy in action, internet style. I suggest that a giant gong be hung for the next debate, where selected audience members can gong it when a candidate becomes boring or stupid. The person with the least amount of gongs wins. Where is Chuck Barris when you need him?
I tuned out after an hour. Jim Lehrer did his best to spice things up by urging the candidates to go tête-à-tête. From the bit I saw, Obama just couldn’t look McCain straight in the face. Perhaps this was out of civility or fear. McCain didn’t look at Obama at all. He seemed unable to turn his head. Maybe this was out of pure disrespect or something to do with his injuries. The old guy is pretty stiff.
One thing I noticed, or really my wife did, was how each candidate was dressed. Both McCain and Obama were colored in the American flag. Obama was in a dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie. McCain donned a blue suit, light blue (almost white) shirt, and a red and white striped tie. Red, White, and Blue. Ol’Glory. I can’t help wonder what the psycho-ideological affect this has. Everything is so managed in American democracy that, to invert Freud, sometimes a suit just isn’t a suit.
The democratic realism of it all, the careful effort by each candidate to stay within the bounds of acceptable political speech, while trying to portray his opponent as outside of it, stifled the range of each candidates’ opinions. Most of what each candidate said was predictable, making the debate merely performative. I think this is why Lehrer’s attempts to get them to engage each other fell flat. Each candidate didn’t want to talk to the other because the other was not the object of their words. Their interlocutor was the camera that mediated them and the “American people” or as McCain repeatedly said, “my friends.”
At some point, I think I figured that if I wanted to read restricted political speech, I’ll read a stenograph of a Stalinist Central Committee plenum. Like Stalin and the boys, McCain and Obama’s words were all surface. Whatever deeper meaning they had existed on a mystified genealogy of codes, slogans, gestures, and references. This was best exemplified by the fact that every time Obama said the meme “Bush” the Democrats in the audience pressed their little buttons in approval. Every time McCain said “cut spending” the Republicans responded in unison. The content that followed each of these memes was irrelevant.
Perhaps the whole scriptedness and smooth narratives of each candidate’s words is best revealed in what I did after I switched the plastic people off. I put on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which has been sitting on my DVR for a few weeks. Now that I think of it, maybe my mind needed some kind of drug laden, non-narrative psychedelia to pull me out of the “real world.” Perhaps the stark “unreality” of the incoherent rambling of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo (played excellently by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) was precisely what I needed to pull me out of the “reality” of the Presidential Debate. The irony of it all is quite striking . . .
Nevertheless, I seems that I tuned out to quickly. Russia did get special attention towards the debate’s end. Lehrer asked:
New lead question. Russia, goes to you, two minutes, Senator Obama. How do you see the relationship with Russia? Do you see them as a competitor? Do you see them as an enemy? Do you see them as a potential partner?
Obama was predictable as the sunrise. His words were peppered with the typical adjectives that tend to swirl around the word “Russia.” Words and phrases like “resurgent and very aggressive,” “unacceptable,” unwarranted,” “you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship,” “fledgling democracies,” “[Georgia and Ukraine are] free to join NATO,” and “can’t return to a Cold War posture.”
My favorite was the constant reference to Russia and “the way they’ve been behaving.” Can there be a more explicit statement to how Americans see themselves as the Father and all other nations as children that need correction when they misbehave?
McCain didn’t say anything out of the ordinary either. He made references to how “Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia,” was “a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government,” “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B,” “their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior,” “I don’t believe we’re going to go back to the Cold War,” “Russian threats to regain their status of the old Russian to regain their status of the old Russian empire, and “the norms of international behavior.”
Is there any difference between these two in regard to Russia? Nope. Nothing. Zilch. Even Obama doesn’t think so. He said, “No, actually, I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues.” Wonderful.
However trite their statements about Russia were, there were still some comments worth noting.
“[The Russians] have to remove themselves from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
Good luck on that one my good Senator. Someone might want to let him know that there is no possibility of that.
Then there was this one:
They have not only 15,000 nuclear warheads, but they’ve got enough to make another 40,000, and some of those loose nukes could fall into the hands of al Qaeda.
I was also struck by McCain’s move to political economy when talking about Russia. He said,
And that wasn’t just about a problem between Georgia and Russia. It had everything to do with energy.There’s a pipeline that runs from the Caspian through Georgia through Turkey. And, of course, we know that the Russians control other sources of energy into Europe, which they have used from time to time.
McCain the Marxist. If only a smidgen of this analysis would be applied to America’s own foreign policy, those in Washington would include, as noble prize winning economist Joseph Stigliz does, that Iraq is part of America’s economic insolvency.
In all, my impression of the debate, and the cadidates in general, is best expressed in the sacrosanct words of Dr. Gonzo, “I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the fear”