Sunday, September 28, 2008

The First Presidential Debate

I listened to the presidential debate mostly on the radio. Saw the last bit on television and then watched the MSNBC commentary on Saturday morning. Lot of talking and writing abut who won. I think my view is in this headline from The Scotsman: Gloves off but neither man lands a blow.

There was a lot of difference between just listening and also seeing. Based on just listening, Obama came across better than McCain. What I saw at the end did not change my opinion too much. (Even factoring in my favoring of Obama).

Was McCain put away in this debate? No. Was Obama? Not hardly. I think Obama sounded the more presidential, the more sensible. (Although both sounded very mealy mouthed when asked about their respective support for the bailout plan).

The real winner: Lehrer. He actually made them answer questions. I was impressed.

Doug Masson has a good and much shorter review of the debate in his Debate.

What actually got me to write this piece was Joe Scarborough's reaction to Roger Simon's The Mac is back. Especially this paragraph:
John McCain was very lucky that he decided to show up for the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., Friday night. Because he gave one of his strongest debate performances ever.
Yes, Joe, Mr. Simon correctly reported that McCain gave one of McCain's strongest debate performances ever. Which does not say much for McCain's debating skills. Otherwise, I do not think Mr. Simon gives much more support to the McCain won crowd than do the following excerpts.

The First Debate: A Win for Obama - Campaign Stops - 2008 Elections - Opinion - New York Times Blog:
"Any analysis of the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss,. must begin with a simple question:What was each candidate trying to achieve?

For Barack Obama it was all about the half of all Americans who still think he lacks the requisite qualifications to be president. Would he seem knowledgeable and effective in talking about serious foreign policy issues? Would he be able to reassure them that they can trust him with the nation’s most powerful job? Would he be able to go toe-to-toe with John McCain."

For Mr. McCain, who is trailing in the polls and has had a rough two-week stretch since the financial crisis broke, he needed a clear victory Friday night. Considering that foreign policy is seen as his strong point he needed to portray Mr. Obama as naïve and inexperienced and not up to the job of commander in chief. More important, after his behavior of this past week, he needed to cultivate an air of statesmanship and counteract the growing chorus of recklessness being heard in the national media.

On a substantive level, both candidates acquitted themselves well. In a political vacuum, this debate would seem like a tie. But as any fan of baseball knows, the tie goes to the runner.

Too many seem concerned with Obama's agreement with McCain, but this article caught what I think is one of two reasons for this tactic:

Maybe this was purposeful; an effort to cultivate an image of the steady hand. His constant assertion that Mr. McCain was “right” or that he agreed with him seemed at times over the top, but likely appealed to undecided voters tired of partisanship in Washington.

The First Debate: The Past Vs. the Future by Mark Penn hits on this point and takes it a bit further:

Mr. McCain gave plenty for the core Republican voters to support, but he failed to reach out to the middle. By agreeing with Mr. McCain so often, Mr. Obama gave the appearance of reaching over to the swing voters, and that also helped him.

McCain made out that Obama was so far to the left that he could not hope to be the bipartisan President that McCain would be, and that ought to leave a question open for Republicans. Is your guy not as far to the right as he appears? I think not but then I think McCain will say anything to get elected President.

Nicholas Kristoff noted McCain's tough talk in his Impulsive, Impetuous, Impatient:

In Friday’s debate, Mr. McCain was on his best behavior. But he did reiterate his suspicion of diplomacy with our enemies, and he has often shown that his instinct in a confrontation (whether with a colleague or a country) is the opposite of John Kennedy’s in the Cuban missile crisis; Mr. McCain responds to challenges by seeking to escalate, to fight.

All in all, it’s astonishing that Mr. McCain seems determined to return to Mr. Bush’s first-term policies that have been utterly discredited even within the administration. Judging from Mr. McCain’s own positions, on foreign policy he could well end up more Bush than Bush.

Why lean on the most discredited President of our life times? Are the Republicans truly so stupid or deluded that their policies work? Or is this more electioneering cant for McCain? If so, it is truly dangerous talk. No, I think he truly thinks that macho bluster is the same as manly forcefulness. Too bad he does not channel more of Theodore Roosevelt than George W. TR knew the innate weakness of the bully made then both feared and ridiculed rather than respected.

Frank Rich dismantles McCain and his campaign in detail (and with hyperlinks) in McCain’s Suspension Bridge to Nowhere:

Yet even as he huffed and puffed about being a “leader,” McCain took no action and felt no urgency. As his Congressional colleagues worked tirelessly in Washington, he malingered in New York. He checked out the suffering on Main Street (or perhaps High Street) by conferring with Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the Hillary-turned-McCain supporter best known for her fabulous London digs and her diatribes against Obama’s elitism. McCain also found time to have a well-publicized chat with one of those celebrities he so disdains, Bono, and to give a self-promoting public speech at the Clinton Global Initiative.

There was no suspension of his campaign. His surrogates and ads remained on television. Huffington Post bloggers, working the phones, couldn’t find a single McCain campaign office that had gone on hiatus. This “suspension” ruse was an exact replay of McCain’s self-righteous “suspension” of the G.O.P. convention as Hurricane Gustav arrived on Labor Day. “We will put aside our political hats and put on our American hats,” he declared then, solemnly pledging that conventioneers would help those in need. But as anyone in the Twin Cities could see, the assembled put on their party hats instead, piling into the lobbyists’ bacchanals earlier than scheduled, albeit on the down-low.

Much of the press paid lip service to McCain’s new “suspension” as it had to its prototype. In truth, the only campaign activity McCain did drop was a Wednesday evening taping with David Letterman. Don’t mess with Dave. Picking up where the “The View” left off in speaking truth to power, the uncharacteristically furious host hammered the absent McCain on and off for 40 minutes, repeatedly observing that the cancellation “didn’t smell right.”

In a journalistic coup de grâce worthy of “60 Minutes,” Letterman went on to unmask his no-show guest as a liar. McCain had phoned himself that afternoon to say he was “getting on a plane immediately” to deal with the grave situation in Washington, Letterman told the audience. Then he showed video of McCain being touched up by a makeup artist while awaiting an interview by Couric that same evening at another CBS studio in New York.

Still more from The New York Times. Maureen Dowd makes some good points in Sound, but No Fury:

McCain kept painting Obama as naïve, and dangerous, insisting that he “doesn’t quite understand or doesn’t get it.”

Obama should have responded “Senator, I understand perfectly, I’m just saying you’re wrong.”

On the surge, he could have said that McCain was the arsonist who wanted to be praised for the great job he’s doing putting out the fire he started.

When Obama took quiet umbrage at McCain’s attack about troop-funding, he could have pounded the lectern and said with real anger: “John, I am sick and tired of you suggesting that I would take funds away from our brave soldiers. I no more voted for that than you did when you voted against our funding proposals that would have imposed a timetable. And unlike you, I did not vote against funding increases for the troops that have come home with devastating physical and mental injuries.”

And who cares what Henry Kissinger thinks? He was wrong 35 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Obama did a poor job of getting under McCain’s skin. Or maybe McCain did an exceptional job of not letting Obama get under his skin. McCain nattered about earmarks and Obama ran out of gas.

She would like a knockout punch. So would many of us who want to see the nightmare of the past seven years done. Not going to happen - yet. Obama carries too much baggage to attack the hero McCain and he wants to preserve his post-partisanship ideal. He needs to get McCain to self-destruct on national television. I think Dowd's proposed responses are right on the money. Let us see what happens at the next debate. I think Obama knows the difference between bluster and forcefulness. I also think his sports metaphor is not boxing but basketball. It is not yet fourth quarter and he is not trailing.

Maybe, too, Obama prefers his sound to signify something rather like this:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

You might also want to check out this explanation of the scene from Macbeth:

His speech insists that there is no meaning or purpose in life. Rather, life “is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” One can easily understand how, with his wife dead and armies marching against him, Macbeth succumbs to such pessimism. Yet, there is also a defensive and self-justifying quality to his words. If everything is meaningless, then Macbeth’s awful crimes are somehow made less awful, because, like everything else, they too “signify nothing.”

Judging by who used slogans instead of ideas, then McCain lost the debate. Surely we have seen what relying upon slogans without content have left us. Such as using victory to describe the condition for which we must leave Iraq without explaining what we are supposed to win in Iraq. Contentless statements that sound good to the ear - these signify nothing. Obama does not escape all criticism for empty slogans but he sure does a lot less of it than McCain and the Republicans. That gives me hope for his success and for a better future for all of us.

Postscript: I missed any details about polling of the debate until I saw Lindsey Graham visibly grumpy after hearing about the good polling numbers for Obama: ‘I’m tired’.

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