This year's presidential debates failed to produce that decisive moment, the "You're no Jack Kennedy" or "There you go again" that will be remembered for years. But they did highlight something that is all too often dismissed by the apostles of civics-textbook campaigns, where candidates carefully lay out their plans of action and policy proposals, and informed citizens evaluate carefully before making a voting choice: The stark contrast in the candidates' temperament and character.
The Republican nominee could still win this election. But in McCain, voters are seeing a man being steadily consumed by anger, his campaign desperately trying one gimmick after another while it taps into the ugliest of voter impulses. His latest rhetorical move is to attack his opponent's tax plan for allegedly taking money from good Americans and giving it to people too poor to pay income taxes. McCain is now calling Obama's refundable tax credits "welfare," a term whose racial implications everyone understands. Classy.
While McCain's campaign is showing who he is and what he'll stoop to, voters are discovering that whatever else you think about Barack Obama, the man is calm. Like a human Xanax, he soothes all those around him. Unlike McCain, who reacted to the economic crisis with as many different policies as there were days in the week, Obama related the events to his fundamental message of change, and assured Americans in Rooseveltian terms that the country would endure. As they watched the debates, many voters were no doubt surprised to see not the crazy radical they had been led to believe Obama was, but a perfectly sane fellow who sounded more reasonable -- and much more in control -- than his opponent. That's one reason that despite the fact that Obama spends plenty of time criticizing McCain, voters overwhelmingly say McCain is the one doing the attacking.
The public seems to be getting the impression that for all McCain's vainglorious preening about his superior moral fiber and incomparably copious love for America, the Arizona senator simply has a character problem. And it matters, just as much as any position paper you can find on either candidate's web site.
In 1972, political scientist James David Barber published The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. Though many were skeptical of the typology Barber devised to categorize presidents (and some had no problem with the typology but disagreed about which presidents ought to be placed in which box), Barber's innovation was the claim that in a president, character matters above all. What we elect is not a party leader or a set of policy ideas but an individual human being whose personality quirks and self-esteem issues will determine the country's course (you can read the introduction to Barber's book here).
When Barber wrote his book, the White House was occupied by Richard Nixon, as fertile a subject of psychological investigation as ever prowled the corridors of the West Wing. Subsequent presidencies -- particularly the current one -- have shown how much the personal is political. You don't have to believe that George W. Bush launched the Iraq war in order to show up the father who apparently favored Bush's younger and smarter brother Jeb. (Although it's worth noting just how W. failed to measure up. The father was a war hero, while the son couldn't manage to show up for exercises with the "Champagne Unit" of the Texas Air Guard; the father was a star athlete, while the son was a cheerleader; the father was a successful businessman, while the son excelled in bringing small companies to their demise; the father was a mediocre president, while the son was perhaps America's worst.) But you can trace the roots of the Iraq disaster to Bush's personal weaknesses -- his Manichean worldview, his need to appear strong in the eyes of others, or his disdain for facts when they get in the way of his gut, to name a few.
Oedipal issues aside, if we had undertaken it in 2000, would a little more investigation into George W. Bush's deep psychological needs and idiosyncrasies have given us a better idea of just how epic a catastrophe his presidency would become? Most of the character question at the time revolved around whether Bush was smart enough for the job. A legitimate question, to be sure, but in retrospect it missed the mark. It wasn't that Bush didn't know enough, but that he thought that what little he knew was enough. He had a lethal combination of ignorance and self-assuredness (one we can see so clearly in Governor Palin). He saw the world in black-and-white terms, a perspective with disastrous consequences -- to take just one example, if al-Qaeda are bad guys, and Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, then we can strike at al-Qaeda by taking out Saddam Hussein. A September 2000 article in the short-lived magazine George quoted Bush saying, "I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for president." That someone who believed such a thing might be unwilling to listen to criticism is something that perhaps the country should have considered.
It would have been guesswork, of course -- indeed, the prevailing opinion about Bush eight years ago was that he might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but he was an honest, goodhearted guy with a genuine desire to govern in a bipartisan way and that, if nothing else, he couldn't do much harm. But the fact that so many were so wrong about Bush doesn't mean that contemplating the effect of character is not a useful endeavor.
Both of the current candidates understood how important character would be in determining the outcome of the election. But, from the start, the McCain campaign thought character meant biography -- that if they could retell the story of McCain's captivity and torture in a Vietnamese POW camp often enough, people's awe at McCain's suffering four decades ago would carry him to the White House. If the question before the country were which candidate could endure torture for the longest, McCain would be the obvious choice. But unfortunately for him, that isn't the question at all.
And McCain is increasingly defined by the less savory aspects of his character. In this campaign, he has seemed both trapped in the 1960s and willing to adopt nearly any position if it will secure the loyalty of another sliver of the Republican base. His impulsive decision to put Palin on his ticket brought unwanted attention to his love of gambling, both in politics and at the craps table. And for a guy who constantly touts his eagerness to reach across the aisle, McCain can be an extremely unpleasant person. Over the years, his famously volcanic temper has been directed at those who cross him, whether a colleague in the Senate or an ordinary person. He can also be vindictive and petty, holding on to grudges for years and lashing out at people who get in his way.
(Witness, for instance, the childish letter he wrote to Obama after the new Illinois senator decided not to play second fiddle to McCain in a political reform effort, but rather to back a Democratic-led initiative: "I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn't always a priority for every one of us.")
Obama, on the other hand, may not vote with Republicans very often, but his default position is to treat those who disagree with him with respect and consideration. So in the final debate, we saw Obama patiently explaining why he thought McCain was wrong, and calmly detailing his plans. Meanwhile, McCain seethed with anger at everything his opponent said, his teeth grinding, his contempt for Obama coursing across his face.
Whether it will be reflected in his presidency or not, Obama's campaign has certainly embodied this calm. One of the most notable characteristics of the candidate and his key advisers throughout this long process has been their stubborn refusal to panic. They had a plan and they stuck to it, whether they were up or down in the polls. Unlike the opponents they faced in both the primary and general elections, they did not cast about madly for new issues on which to focus or new rationalizations to offer. Their fundamental narrative -- Obama is the agent of change the country needs, while his opponent(s) offer only a continuation of the failures and disappointments of the past -- has remained constant.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, Obama's calm has helped make him a more successful candidate than almost anyone could have imagined. What kind of a president it would make him depends on circumstances none of us can foresee.