Save for the odd trip to the White House and the hastily arranged press conference to respond to John McCain’s suspension of the campaign, Barack Obama has spent the last three days in intense preparations for tonight’s debate. Due to its chosen topic--foreign policy--those preparations have likely consisted of poring over maps of the Caucasus and pronunciation guides to Pakistani names. But, according to The Wall Street Journal, Obama and his advisers have also been spending time “considering how to provoke Senator McCain into anger.”
Given McCain’s history, that might not prove too difficult. Over the course of his political career--and, perhaps even more so, before it--McCain has often demonstrated a propensity for flying into red-faced rages. As McCain himself conceded in his book Worth the Fighting For, “My temper has often been both a matter of public speculation and personal concern. I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public’s.”
So, what might a debate-prep guide to pissing off McCain look like? Here’s a version of one that could serve Obama well, with suggestions ranging from the obvious to the, uh, out of the box.
Question His Honor: In the past, there’s been no better way to tick off McCain than by suggesting he’s behaved dishonorably. The examples of McCain flying off the handle after having his honor questioned are too numerous to mention, but, to choose one random example, as reported by the Arizona Republic: In 1993, a Phoenix City Councilwoman named Kathy Dubs, who was opposed to the construction of a new airport that McCain supported, asked McCain how much property his relatives owned near the proposed site. “He slammed his fist to the table and stood up and said this meeting is over,” Dubs recalled. “Then he pointed his finger at me and started calling me names. His staff was pulling him back, trying to get him to sit down.”
There are any number of ways Obama could question McCain’s honor. He might ask McCain whether he changed his positions on the Bush tax cuts and immigration and the Christian right out of principle, or simply because he needed to win the Republican nomination. Or Obama could accuse McCain of running a dishonorable campaign, as Obama’s ads and spokesmen have already done. Chances are McCain will be on the lookout for this tactic of questioning his honor--and will have been sufficiently coached so he doesn’t lose his cool--but it’s a low-risk, high-yield proposition for Obama. He should at least try it.
Accuse Him of Grandstanding: It’s somewhat related to questioning his honor--since it goes to motive--but McCain gets peeved when people accuse him of grandstanding. (Probably because the accusations are often true.) Just consider what happened last year, when, as The Washington Post reported, Texas Senator John Cornyn accused McCain of “parachut[ing]” into the final stages of negotiations over an immigration bill. “Fuck you!” McCain allegedly shouted at Cornyn. “I know more about this than anyone else in the room.”
Obama might suggest McCain was grandstanding when he suspended his campaign and tried to postpone the debate. Or, if McCain brings up the celebrity stuff, Obama can easily pounce by pointing out that McCain’s written five memoirs to Obama’s two and been on Leno eleven times to Obama’s one.
Disingenuously Disavow an Attack: McCain, to his credit, hates insincerity--especially when the person being insincere is simultaneously sliming him. This was never more evident than during a 2000 presidential debate in South Carolina, in the midst of the nasty under-the-radar campaign pro-Bush forces were waging against McCain in that state. As Time recently reported, during a commercial break in the debate, Bush sidled over to McCain, placed his hand on McCain’s arm, and pledged that he had nothing to do with the attacks. “Don’t give me that shit,” McCain reportedly responded. “And take your hands off me.”
How might Obama provoke a similar (and on-air) outburst? Well, he could follow his running mate’s lead and express regret over his campaign’s ad that made fun of McCain for his inability to use a computer, but with an added bit of smarm like, “I mean, I know how hard it can be for old folks to get the hang of it. Why, my 85-year-old grandmother doesn’t use one either.”
Mess With His Podium: We sometimes forget, but McCain’s short. Like Dukakis short. (He’s reportedly 5’7”.) And it seems that McCain doesn’t like to be reminded of his small stature. Most famously, there was the incident that occurred on the night he was first elected to the Senate in 1986, when, while reviewing the tape of his victory speech on TV, he discovered that the podium had been set up in such a way that the cameras had captured only part of his face. According to an account in The Washington Post, McCain tracked down the twenty-something Republican volunteer who’d helped arrange the evening’s celebrations and screamed at him, “I told you we needed a stage. You incompetent little shit. When I tell you to do something, you do it.”
How can 6’1.5” Obama take advantage of this? Maybe he could linger a little bit in the pre- and post-debate handshakes in order to flaunt his height advantage. (At all costs, Obama should not pull an Al Gore and try to invade his opponent’s personal space during the debate.) Or, if Obama really wants to play dirty, have one of his aides slip a stagehand a Ben Franklin and ask him to swipe the milk crate McCain intends to stand on.
Dye Your Hair Orange and Pretend You’re 92 Years Old: Okay, okay, this might not fly with the stuffed-shirts--too gimmicky--but hear me out. Probably the weirdest instance of McCain losing his temper occurred in 1995. McCain was making a statement at an Armed Services Committee hearing when the committee’s chairman, Strom Thurmond, interrupted him and asked, “Is the senator about through?” As Washingtonian reported, “McCain later confronted Thurmond on the Senate floor. A scuffle ensued, and the two didn’t part friends.” Thurmond was 92 years old at the time.
It might be insensitive on, like, 17 levels and take tons of make-up and dozens of jugs of Tang, but if McCain gets to do crazy things like suspend his campaign and pick an unknown hockey mom as his VP, why can’t Obama have some fun and dress up like a dead anti-civil rights zealot?
(Don’t answer that.)
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.