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Tonight's Debate: Obama Can Use Humor to Connect with Voters and Corner McCain

By Jonathan Leigh Solomon  Posted by Jonathan Leigh Solomon (about the submitter)     Permalink
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At some point during tonight's presidential debate in Nashville, an audience member will ask Barack Obama some sort of question concerning his "character." Obama's answer should include the following:

Well, yes, I've even heard I've been "palling around with terrorists." But you know, sometimes in political campaigns people are going to say things that aren't true. If Senator McCain is willing to put up with being called a "maverick," I can put up with a few people saying, I've palled around with terrorists.

As Ronald Reagan proved, a judicious use of humor during a political campaign can be very good strategy. For Obama, particularly tonight, this could be especially true. His cool, calm style has paid off lately, seeming to answer the question for many voters, "could this guy be president?" But town hall-style debates raise another question important to voters: "Is this guy a recognizable facsimile of a human?" Connecting with the audience by way of humor will produce the sort of warm, engaging moments voters are looking for from Obama.

There is also the all of important choice of which theoretically spontaneous, entirely pre-scripted jokes to use. Seemingly innocuous, but functioning on multiple levels, jokes are invaluable in politics because they can solve problems for a candidate or trap an opponent in ways that speeches and ads cannot and do it in the blink of an eye.

In 1984, Reagan wanted to confront concerns that he was too old for a second term. His, "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience" line never addressed the question directly nonetheless, the age question vanished.

My "maverick" joke above, like the proverbial grain of sand, offers many rewards: First, it's self-deprecating a good tone for any politician, but especially Obama because he is thought to take himself too seriously.

Also, because the joke nominally compliments McCain for his forbearance in the face of untruths, it puts McCain in a no-win position if he doesn't laugh along he'll look like a very peevish bad sport, but if he does laugh he will seem to have ceded Obama's point that he is not a maverick.

Finally, as with all Swiftboat-style stories, the Obama/Ayer's association has power only insofar as Obama is perceived to be running from it. As soon as Obama says, "palling around" that's gone. Meanwhile, Obama repeating the charge means McCain is essentially being called out and once again this put him in a no-win position. He can stand by the charge which requires going negative, up-close and personal, without the cover of surrogates. Or, he can disown the charge, impugning his own campaign and with it the veracity of any future attacks on his opponent.

But there is a caveat to all of this. The "maverick" joke is not technically a joke. A joke is: premise/the idea, set-up/the suspense, punch line/the surprise conclusion. Result, a laugh. For instance, courtesy of the late Henny Youngman:

A man goes to a psychiatrist. He says to the psychiatrist, "Nobody listens to me!" The psychiatrist says, "Next!"

"Next" is the surprise conclusion. Now, make the same point in a humorous way, but not in joke form:

A psychiatrist says, "Next" when his patient walks in the door. Pretty much proving his patient's point that nobody listens to him.

In the same way, in the Obama joke, putting "... around with terrorists" as the punch line instead of "maverick," renders it not a joke.

Another way to make a joke not a joke, is to tell the joke without the set-up.

A while back John McCain said he wanted to be in Iraq for a hundred years. When you hear about his plans for the economy, you have to wonder if he wants to be in a recession for a hundred years.

This joke/not-a-joke technicality is essential because a presidential candidate should never tell outright jokes. The alchemy is buried when a top comedian has a room rocking with laughter, but the crowd always has the power the power to not give the comedian the laugh. If you want people to elect you leader of the free world, it's best to avoid putting yourself in a position of having less power than whomever you are facing. The "whomever" whether it's one-thousand voters in a gymnasium a nationwide audience in their living rooms are extrapolating to when you are facing not them, but Putin across a table all by himself.
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