Saturday, September 27, 2008

Talking Points

Let's be honest -- Barack Obama didn't really win last night's debate.

He didn't lose it, but he certainly didn't knock it out of the park.

Just how well he fared depends on how you measure victory. The glass-half-full viewpoint is that he more than held his own against a career politician who's spent most of this campaign casting him as dangerously untested; if the goal was simply to appear steadfast and, indeed, presidential, then yes, Obama can put one in the win column. But the glass-half-empty viewpoint -- and have you figured out by now where I fall? -- is that it was Obama who faced a doddering, erratic, panicked opponent who's not only completely out of touch with the problems of modern America but who spent the past two weeks making questionable judgment call after questionable judgment call, and yet he didn't completely mop the floor with him.

Barack Obama had ample opportunity last night to leave John McCain in the dust, and yet for whatever reason he didn't do it. He's smarter than McCain, more eloquent than McCain, and infinitely more personable than McCain; in my mind this should've been a blowout. But then maybe I'm being too harsh -- expecting too much from what's traditionally a very staid affair.

My biggest complaint -- and I can't help but feel that this is a pretty subjective view -- is that Obama allowed McCain to get away with far too much: He let McCain claim that he was naive and "didn't understand" over and over without hitting back hard; he never bothered to bring up the elephant in the room -- McCain's bizarre political stunt that may have contributed to the collapse of the bailout negotiations in Washington and almost killed the debate itself; and, worst of all, he kept agreeing with McCain, saying "Well, John's right about..." Even if you believe it, for God's sake don't begin every other answer by verifying it. You issue a statement like that maybe once just to show that you're magnanimous; you don't say it several times and leave yourself open to a cleverly edited ad that the other guy can throw on the air by morning. ("Even Barack Obama knows that John McCain is right!")

He didn't need to get angry; he just needed to put McCain in his place with a Ronald Reagan "There You Go Again" moment.

Make no mistake though: Obama did manage an inarguable draw, and maybe that's enough. There will be two more of these debates to come -- to say nothing of the Stephanie McMahon vs. The Rock steel cage match scheduled for October 2nd, provided McCain's people can't somehow make it go away before then -- and Obama will no doubt take what he learned from this first one and hit harder and smarter the next time around.

It's just that it would be a shame if McCain's relatively adequate performance -- albeit one tinged with plenty of Bush-like smugness and condescension -- brought his narrative back from the precipice and allowed America to forget the batshit lunacy of the past couple of weeks.


VOTAR said...

I have to call it like I saw it. Keep in mind, this is not a reflection of who I think is the best choice, but rather who I think did more effectively what politicians do to win debates:

McCain 55% : Obama 45%

McCain did a number of things "right" (by which I mean, sadly, the things that most voters seem to react to positively when deciding who to vote for, rather than actually thinking):

Whereas Obama was polite and articulate, McCain fired off salvos of soundbites and bumper sticker slogans. His body language was dismissive, and after a while even I began to see Obama as the smart-mouthed school kid arguing with the elder professor. It stopped mattering that I KNOW he's right! Obama was far too polite, and McCain didn't even have to try too hard to exploit his repeated capitulations. Obama's well-placed jabs in return came far too apart and far too late in the debate. His (factually correct) reminder that the Iraq war was a disastrous mistake was made to look like a curious but irrelevant history lesson rather than a sound platform for future foreign policy. Never mind how we got there; we're there, and the next president is going to have to deal with that.

It hurts me to say this, but as reprehensible as I see McCain and his Rovian divisive and mean-spirited campaign, I have to admit that last night it worked.

Chez said...

Once again, as Bill Maher said last week -- it's the difference between politics and truth.

Obama had much more to say and said it well -- but McCain spoke in jokey soundbites and prattled off grandpa-esque "wisdom" and that's what a lot of people respond to.

The good news though is that most of the outlets -- as well as the focus groups -- are giving the debate to Obama. The better news is that last night's performance isn't likely to change anyone's mind one way or the other.

I have a feeling the next debate will be much different; Obama learns from his missteps, McCain doesn't think he's made any.

Anonymous said...

Adam is right. I am starting to believe there is virus within the democratic party that once your inflicted, your campaign skills become vacuous and the Rovian candidates shred you. Now I don't think Barack got shredded, I do think he needs to be not so nice and not so agreeble and while it is not his style, pick up a pair of boxing gloves because he needs to be Ali - suave and angry!

Donal said...

I think Obama's deference is his strategy to avoid the "uppity negro" charge. He's already been accused of that by gonzo right-wingers, but he doesn't want to hand MSM journos the opportunity to use, "disrespectful" as a code word for, "uppity."

Obama realizes that, "the pen is mightier ..." and that he has to work the MSM as well as the voters. McCain can get away with being Patton, Obama can't even insist that we call him Mr Obama.

hollygirl78 said...

I had a stomachache all day Friday because the expectations were SOOOO high for Obama. He did ok. Not great, but he definitely passed the "Can I see this guy as President?" test. McCain passed it as well, with the caveat of "And holy shit, wouldn't that be scary?"

I am really getting worried about the VP debate. Biden is damned no matter what. When he knows more and/or corrects her errors, he'll be "condescending" or "elitist" or a "snob." If he doesn't hit hard, it'll be that he's "patronizing her." If he does, he'll be a bully picking on a girl.

And the expectations for Caribou Barbie are so low that if she doesn't stumble on the way to the podium or shit her skirt halfway through, she'll be hailed as the victor.

Would love to read your pre-VP debate thoughts on this topic, Chez.

nomadnewyork said...

I admit that I missed the debate, but from what I've seen this morning, Obama needs to stop being such a gentlemen.

I've also noticed that McCain had horrible body language...Horrible! It looked as though he was very angry, like he can't stand Obama and as though he was barely keeping that simmering anger and hatred in check. The lack of eye contact just reconfirms this perception.

Brandon said...

Well, the McCain campaign has made a lot of hot air about Obama being the "most liberal senator". By Obama's recognition of similarities between himself and McCain, it shows that he is at least willing to hear out the other side. The narrative of Obama being unable to reach across party lines loses some credibility here.

I went away from the debate veiwing McCain as a grumpy, old man at best or a petulant spoiled child at worse. Most 7 year olds have learned to lie with their face better than McCain did last night.

James said...

well, that didn't take long

clayperkins said...

Obama has a walk a very fine line here, lest he be subject to the same debate fate as Al Gore in 2000. He has the obvious intellectual and temperament advantage, but if those things seem so completely blown out, NASCAR America ends up seeing him as that smart kid they hated in geometry class.

And remember, this was the debate (foreign policy) that was supposed to be to McCain's advantage. At best for either side for this particular battle, it was a draw...which in the long war is an Obama win.

Chez said...

James --

I'd like to say that that prediction qualifies me to be a hack political operative, but really it was so damned obvious.

Anonymous said...

Perception counts. McCain came off as angry and rude. Everyone in polite society is taught from childhood to look someone in the face when talking to them. McCain wouldn't do it and that's hurting him.

If he won't look someone in the face whether he hates them or thinks he's better than them, how's he gonna deal with other world leaders. Oh yeah, he doesn't want to meet with them without preconditions. That hurt him especially when he didn't even know that his friend of 35 years, Henry Kissinger said he would meet without preconditions.

Bob Cesca has a video on his blog which clearly shows McCain saying "horseshit" twice when Obama said McCain wouldn't meet with the leader of Spain, probably the first time a candidate has used profanity in a debate. When that gets around McCain's rating will go down further.

McCain said America has been torturing prisoners, even though it's doubtful he meant to. How's that gong to help him?

Obama did a good job. Yeah he's still too nice but I doubt that will change much. And I really believe that's what people like about him in addition to his superior intelligence and even temperament. He looks presidential and McCain looks angry and crazy.

You guys who want to see Obama put a smackdown on McCain need to watch a few UFC matches and get over it. Obama knows what he's doing.

Chez said...

Relax, no one's saying they want to see some kind of live TV beatdown. I'm all for Obama being Obama, and it's true that after watching it again, McCain was just testy as all hell -- as evidenced by his refusal to look at Obama and his apparently muttering "horseshit" under his breath. (I'm putting that video up by the way. Good stuff.) I'm just saying that I had hoped for one or two quick bites that really could've deflated McCain -- and I do think that he missed several opportunities that he should've jumped on. He shouldn't have agreed so often; he should've brought up the pre-debate stunt.

James said...

isn't part of being a hack playing the obvious moves?

Anonymous said...

Yeah Obama missed some opportunities but overall he came out ahead. And I bet he won't be saying McCain is right again. At least I hope not.

I wanted him to be more in attack mode myself but I have finally come to the place after last night that if he's gonna win this thing it's going to be what got him this far. And I feel good about his chances now when before I didn't.

Chez said...

Point taken, James.

Jennifer said...

The quote of the night has to be, "I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government." McCain just handed the National Organization for Women their next ad. Oh, and a spending freeze on everything except entitlement programs and the military was by far the dumbest statement of the evening. Obama should have pointed out the millions of jobs that would be lost by doing that. We in the non-profit sector wouldn't take too kindly to such an absurd decision. I have to say that Obama won this debate on substance, whereas McCain gave the right wing a collective hard on with his smirking, dismissive demeanor.

Anonymous said...

Not to pick on Obama, because I sure don't want McCain as president, but did anyone else notice that he couldn't seem to remember McCain's first name. I think I heard a Jim and a Tom in there. Probably not such a good thing on Obama's part.


Anonymous said...

We know Obama and his people are intelligent and thoughtful enough to have considered all the possible scenarios. Obama's role is the hardest, he has to convince many old white folks to vote for a black man and by attacking and berating senior citizen McCain, it may really turn them off or "frighten" them. I truly believe it was a strategy even though I did have your initial reaction.

He will hit hard but he's saving it to the right time.

Steve said...

I only caught the second half, but it seemed as if Obama's delivery was hesitant.

Delivery trumps content on some circles.

eliza said...


You and most of the other readers of this blog would love nothing more than to see Obama destroy the old man because we are painfully aware of every little news and non news tidbit that's gone down in this election.

We've see McCain obliterate the notion of truth and consistently make gaffe after embarrassing gaffe, leaving one to wonder if Larry King might make a sharper Commander in Chief.

The thing is though, a lot of voters are just now tuning into this election in a real way--the lovely "low information voters." They know the conventional wisdom narratives and that's about it.

The snapshot of the first debate reactions are that people found McCain's obvious irritation to be a large negative. Obama needs to fight back, yes, but I'm not sure the majority of the voting public truly understand the sheer amound of bullshit Obama has had to put up with, and therefore might view any smackdown from Obama unfavorably.

John Cole actually made the excellent point that however SNL decides to play the debate will probably be locked in as the conventional wisdom of how it went down. We shall see.

@Jenny--I heard that too, but I think the "Jim" was in reference to the moderator.

Andrew Smash said...

I agree that the reason for Obama's low-key responses was avoid the 'angry black man' label, but the thing that got me was how FOX news gave McCain such a big, sloppy BJ in their analysis. Why anyone (including the other networks) treats them as anymore than a dancing pony is beyond me.

Kurgan said...

The first time I actually agreed with my opponent, my high school debate coach nearly smacked me in the back of the head.

I recall her vague words.

Something Churchillian like, "NEVER, NEVER, NEVER even appear to agree with your opponent".

She is obviously retired or Barack's head would be bleeding.

Christine said...

Theories being what they are, here's mine: it's all about long term strategy. The reason Obama won the primaries, and ultimately the nomination, is because he never thought it was going to be quick win. He always knew he had to plan for the long haul, and I suspect that's what he's doing now. Round 1, he needed to make people see that he's just as good as McCain, that any fears or criticism about him not being able to handle himself, or that he was out of his league, were untrue. Round 2, he can start going a little more on the offensive, use slightly more cutting language. By this point, those people who didn't know much about him before the debate are going to be more comfortable hearing that.

By the time the election comes around, he should (I hope, I hope, I hope) have enough momentum going from the slow roll he started last night that it won't have to come down to a few percentage points and recounts in Florida.

Anonymous said...

Remember, Obama also beat the cr@p out of Hillary by being nice and agreeing with her in debates. When you agree with someone, you take the air out of their argument and deflate it. It's a great tactic. And it worked with McCain. Bottom line: the independents who watched last night loved Obama. He' going to win the RACE and that's all that matters. Sure, I would ahve liked to see him tear out McCain's heart and eat it right there on the spot while it was still beating. But that ain't gonna happen. As someone else said on another blog, Obama is one cool mofo.

Will said...

Eliza said it.

I'm there right with you guys, urging Obama to verbally bitch-slap McCain in the way we all know he can. And I feel the same frustration that he chose not to.

But then again, we're not the one's he's trying to connect with; we're already voting for him.

I see this as a huge victory. This is the first time the public has been able to see these men, under pressure, side by side. The first time we've had that direct comparison available. On the subtle, non-verbal channels -- everything that subconsciously influences us to judge who is smarter, calmer, more capable -- Obama SCHOOLED him.

McCain looks bad on his own. Next to Barack, he honestly looked like he was on drugs.