As the spin of Friday night’s debate settled in and both sides staked a claim to victory, one media narrative began to take hold: while Obama may have been over-complimentary of McCain, the GOP nominee was grumpy, mean, and downright contemptuous of Obama, much to his detriment.
A clip circulated by Democrats showed the McCain demonstrating all of those traits: smirking when Obama gave his answers, eyes blinking, unwilling to even look at his opponent.
It was a small visual, but one that seemed to be getting traction among the punditry. Charlie Gibson on ABC and David Brooks on PBS both noted that McCain didn’t look at Obama once. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote that McCain sounded “angry and passionate”; MSNBC’s Chris Matthews described the GOP nominee as “troll-like” and “grouchy.”
Editor’s Comment — As George Bush has demonstrated, in and of itself, a smirk does not necessarily result in a political handicap. But with McCain what the smirk reveals — in combination with his unwillingness to make eye-contact with his adversary — is his fear of Obama.
The indispensable knack of “looking presidential” absolutely requires that you do not appear to fear your opponent. While some voters are weighing up the issues and making a purely personal judgment about the candidates, many more are engaged in a form of group behavior that hinges on being able to successfully predict who the winner will be – it’s all about the gravitational pull of power and the fear of social isolation.
Obama passed the looking-presidential test; McCain did not. Little else matters… Until Thursday that is, when — barring some dreadful gaffe by Biden — Sarah Palin will merely reinforce the impression that this is not a team that truly believes in its capacity to govern.