The First Debate 'Obama Can't Let Rumor He is Un-American Go Unchallenged'

If McCain doesn't back out, he'll have his first debate with Barack Obama on Friday. But issues won't matter much, best-selling author and brain researcher Drew Westen argues in a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview. Presentation, decisiveness and humor will be more important.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've written a book on "The Political Brain." How will the brains of millions of television viewers work during the first presidential debate on Friday?

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and family: "There is a risk Obama will look the way he did in some previous debates -- intellectual, rambling, with no obvious heart."

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and family: "There is a risk Obama will look the way he did in some previous debates -- intellectual, rambling, with no obvious heart."

Westen: About 85 percent of people will think their guy won no matter what. A lot of research shows that people support their favorite under any circumstances. Their brains work overtime to justify that view even if the person they support was in reality weaker. Usually only about eight percent of people can be convinced.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But how do you do that?

Westen: John McCain and Sarah Palin want to capitalize on the maverick story. In order to appeal to undecided voters, they want to give the impression that they will ride their horses into town and shoot up Washington until it is clean. In any case, we will see a well-coached, on-message McCain, as we saw in previous appearances over the past months. He looks straight at the audience and into the camera. He gives short answers. It's a show of strength and it's very appealing.


Westen: There is a risk Obama will look the way he did in some previous debates: intellectual, rambling, with no obvious heart. Then McCain would easily seem more forceful and win the debate. That has been the standard story for Democrats in the debates for many years, with the exception of Bill Clinton -- who strongly said what he believed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And who happened to be the last Democratic two-term president.

Westen: Right. To be a worthy Clinton successor, Obama needs to tell two stories. The first is: that he is one of us. That he wants the same things for his kids as we want. It's incredibly important not to let the rumor that he is somehow un-American go unchallenged. Starting with his kids is the best way to confront that, every parent can relate to that. He also has to use values language that transcends party lines and has been appropriated by the right -- terms like responsibility, hard work, commitment, rules. That would again be a return to the successful Clinton language, and Obama has used such phrases successfully in his conversations with African-American communities -- for example, the importance of men committing to their role as fathers. The second story he has to tell is why John McCain is the wrong person for the job -- that he is offering 20th century military and economic solutions to 21st century problems.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: He has to sound strong and determined.

Westen: Exactly. He has to project masculinity and strength, and he has to think about his sequencing. In talking about national security, for example, if you lead with "We don't torture in America," you lose a fair share of the audience -- voters will think you are one of those weak leftists who doesn't understand the challenges posed by stateless terrorists -- a view of Democrats the right has exploited. So, he would do better to start by saying: "It is time to rebuild our military and go after the people who attacked us." That frees him up to take a more progressive approach afterwards. As soon as you establish that you are tough and understand the dangers in the world, you can offer much more progressive positions -- really mainstream American and international positions, like working with your allies, talking with countries that don't agree with you and condemning torture, not manufacturing and exporting it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Officially, this first presidential debate is on foreign policy and America's role in the world. But does the content really matter?

Westen: It matters, but debates are much more about stories and narratives than "issues." McCain will mention his heroism in Vietnam many times. He will communicate: I know national security because I lived it. But there are ways for Obama to challenge that, even though I have doubts he will do it. For example, he could criticize McCain's position on torture and waterboarding. Obama could say: "You, Senator McCain, of all people should know why we should not practice techniques like water-boarding, when you endured five terrible years of torture yourself. You of all people have the moral authority to say: 'America will never again lose its moral compass.'"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't it difficult not to cross the line to a character attack?

Westen: Yes, and I would not directly go after his character. Obama could call McCain out on many issues without crossing that line. For example, he could go after Sarah Palin's position on abortion by saying: "Your running mate and your party wants the government to force rape victims to carry their rapists' babies. That is a huge difference between us." On the economy he could say: "It is not an accident that our economy is a disaster. It happened because Republicans like you oppose even common-sense regulation." He could even use the role of many Bush and Karl Rove advisors in McCain's campaign team to undermine McCain's story of himself as a straight-talking maverick. After all, these are the same people who smeared McCain in the Republican primaries in 2000. Obama could say: "It is sad for me, like many Americans, to see that the lesson you learned when George W. Bush smeared your character with lies and innuendo in the 2000 presidential campaign was that you needed the phone numbers of the guys who orchestrated those smears so you could hire them in 2008."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should he also bring up the age question? Obama is 47, McCain is 72. Many people worry about his health.

Westen: I don' think it will come up. Obama missed the opportunity to bring it up when McCain picked Sarah Palin when it was more than relevant. He could have highlighted that it was a reckless move by a 72-year-old with recurrent melanoma to put somebody with so little experience a heartbeat away from the presidency. But in a debate, this discussion is dangerous territory. I am sure McCain will have a line prepared similar to the great one Ronald Reagan delivered in 1984 - when he said in response to a question about his age (Reagan was 73 when he applied for re-election): "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." That line played over and over on television, along with his opponent's inability to avoid chuckling himself.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is that kind of humor the best weapon in a debate?

Westen: Each side should have at least 15 such lines ready. Self-deprecating humour works best. Or biting jokes delivered with a smile. Sarah Palin, by the way, is a master at that. She can stick a knife in you with a big smile on her face -- and all you see is the blood and the lipstick. Palin should coach McCain for the debate tomorrow.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz.


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