Despite all of the buzz about Senator John McCain’s explosive temper, Democrats would be wise not to bet on a McCain meltdown. Sure, he could lose his cool at some point, but accounts of his intemperate outbursts over the years indicate that he rarely goes ballistic in public forums.
McCain projects a very tightly-controlled persona in media interviews. One of his more impressive communication skills is to lower the volume in his one-on-one television interviews — almost to a whisper — conveying a sense that “this is a reasonable, level-headed man,” in stark contrast to reports of his temper tantrums with aides, congressional peers and his spouse. A lot of voters seem to be impressed by this, and it may be reflected in McCain’s relatively high ‘favorable’ scores in opinion polls — even though the content of what is being said, particularly in McCain’s case, is often disturbing. (Glenn Greenwald has a good post on the topic of McCain’s manipulation of the media here)
McCain is also reportedly adept at schmoozing the press, one reason for the ‘free ride’ many progressives see in the coverage of McCain’s campaign so far. The media interview is McCain’s strongest messaging skill, and his campaign will deploy it lavishly in the months ahead. Don’t be surprised by a series of faux interview, low-content ads showing McCain as a ‘down-to-earth’ guy.
The tightly-controlled persona loosens some in his speech-making, because political speeches require a little passion. Here McCain is good at projecting appealing personal qualities like humility. In his Washington Times article, reporter Stephen Dinan jokingly describes McCain’s current series of speaking engagements, said to be peppered with self-effacing comments meant to endear him to audiences, as the “imperfect public servant tour.”
But the tension is there in the debates. McCain is a white-knuckle debater and appears easily annoyed at times. Both Clinton and Obama have an edge over McCain when it comes to debating skills. But we have seen in recent presidential elections that “who won the debates” doesn’t necessarily decide the election. As Chicago Tribune reporter Jim Tankersly notes via the LA Times,
There’s also a reason Republicans think their party will prevail: In several recent presidential elections, issues took a back seat to personality. Voters want government to do more to fix the economy. They also want U.S. troops out of Iraq. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, sides with a distinct minority on both counts…But on less tangible questions of leadership, strength and trustworthiness, polls show McCain beating Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic candidates.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that FDR had “second-class intellect, but a first class temperament.” Although it’s a bit of a stretch to characterize a President smart enough to win four terms as intellectually lagging, Holmes’ point about the importance of temperament in a politician is instructive. (See Geoffrey Ward’s “A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt” for an interesting book on the topic)
Democrats are in a good position with respect of the temperament of both leading presidential candidates. Clinton’s communication skills have improved significantly as a Senator. Obama seems to have temperamental maturity beyond his years, which should serve him well in face-ups with McCain, should Obama win the nomination. But it would be folly to let reports of McCain’s tantrums make Democrats overconfident. Better for Dems to assume they are dealing with a highly-skilled communicator and respond accordingly.