#4 The defining moment in Mississippi

Every election seems to have a defining moment.  It is the one that pundits point to after the election and tell you why they knew at that moment who was going to win the election.  It is much riskier to pick the defining moment when it happens and say, with some level of authority, before the rest of the election process has run its course, the defining moment has occurred.  In the 2008 American presidential election, that defining moment—barring something catastrophic and unforeseen—was probably during the McCain/Obama debate in Mississippi on September 26.  It was when McCain insulted Obama, saying that he did not know the difference between a strategy and a tactic.

While it was obvious that McCain’s handlers had drilled into him the evening’s strategy to appear more knowledgeable and experienced than Obama in economic matters and foreign affairs, they would never have suggested that he use a tactic such as a gratuitous insult.  It was obvious that he caught Obama off guard with it as the younger man practically spluttered that of course he knew the difference.

What was wrong with the insult was that Obama is not only well educated but served as president of the Harvard Law Review.  What was much worse about the insult was that millions of people watching the debate would not know the difference.  McCain insulted them as well as his opponent by acting rudely superior.

McCain not only used the wrong tactic to serve his strategy but his strategy failed to adjust to meet the Obama strategy head on.  The Obama strategy was more subtle.  He was obviously going for the draw.  The first obvious tactic was to be collegial with his opponent: he started out referring to him as ‘John.’  When McCain consistently called him ‘Senator Obama,’ the Illinois Senator had no choice but to break his pattern at about mid way and refer to his opponent as ‘Senator.’

It is no wonder that a rift is starting to appear in McCain’s right-wing born-again support as the younger members of that group are declaring Obama acceptable to them.  Obama has learned how to talk their talk and he is taking full advantage of it.

In the debate, it was also obvious that Obama has dumbed down his language.  He must be the first Harvard Law Review president to ever speak like that!  Placing his style of speaking is difficult but he must have learned some of it from his black constituents in and around Chicago.

In Canada, we can only wish that Dion and Harper would dumb down their language.  While McCain and Obama honed their debating skills in the American Senate, the people north of the border had their practice in the unruly Canadian Parliament.  Dion’s opponents in the English-language debate know that if they get him angry or excited, nobody will understand him.  In the French-language debate, he will hold his own against Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton but will be savaged by Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois.  If he loses the two back to back debates, he is history.

Dion needs to take a prompt card with him that he can borrow from the 1992 Clinton presidential election.  It needs to read: It’s the economy stupid. He can let Jack Layton and Elizabeth May of the Greens defend his Carbon Tax and he can start to look like a prime minister.  He can borrow from the tactics of previous Liberal leaders such as Chrétien and Trudeau and treat Harper’s insults with the distain they deserve.  He can take an end-run on Harper and talk honestly about Afghanistan.

The one thing he cannot allow Harper to do is to walk away from the economy.  The North American economy has tanked and while Canadians can point south to the origin of the ill winds that are buffeting them, they still need home-made solutions to the crises.  Simple greed and laissez-faire administration led to the sub-prime mortgage losses in America that collapsed the economy, almost destroying the financial structure of the country.  In Canada, the Harper government has been hiding behind the inflationary growth in value of natural resource (read oil) exports to offset a serious loss of manufacturing jobs in Ontario.  While central Canada has been bleeding, Harper’s home base in Alberta has been accumulating unconscionable profits.

Harper broke his own rules in calling the early election partly because of the looming financial crisis and it was the economic concerns that must have led to his opening joke at all the early campaign stops that his family wanted him to be an accountant but instead he became an economist because, as he quipped, “I didn’t have the charisma to be an accountant.”  None the less, he made the point that he is an economist.

But he is a conservative economist and Canadians and Americans have historically turned to more left-wing economics in troubled times.  It was Liberal Mackenzie King and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt who led their countries from the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Whether Liberal Stéphane Dion and Democrat Barack Obama are up to the task of rescuing their countries from the current problems is very much a question mark.  Voters in both countries are looking for leadership with a confidence that has not been shown to date.  Promises of big spending political programs might be the stuff of politicians’ promises but that is not going to work at this stage.

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