Saturday, September 27, 2008

One Debate Down

Some quasi-random thoughts about last night's debate:

- I wouldn't be surprised if we see the same kind of radio/television split that was observed after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 (although obviously the audience last night was much more heavily t.v.-based). McCain's body language as captured by the television pool (which often went to a split screen) was by far the worst element of his performance - he appeared to be completely refusing to look at Obama and talked directly at moderator Jim Lehrer, rather than to his opponent or to the cameras. At times he appeared to be clenching his jaw shut so hard I feared for the safety of his teeth. On style points, Obama won hands down (although even he looked more tired and a little less chipper than he usually does).

- Neither candidate landed a body blow: McCain's attempts took the form of repeated assertions that Obama "doesn't understand" (I counted at least seven deployments of that phrase), and the line was totally undermined by Obama's clear understanding of the issues under discussion. Obama got in perhaps the most effective rebuttal of the night, saying to one of McCain's points "John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong." That was good, and effective, although Lehrer jumped in at the end and stole the moment.

At least one other time, though, Obama was teed up perfectly to lambaste McCain, and he almost got there, but petered out at the last second:

"McCain: ... And spending, I know, can be brought under control because I have fought against excessive spending my entire career. And I got plans to reduce and eliminate unnecessary and wasteful spending and if there's anybody here who thinks there aren't agencies of government where spending can be cut and their budgets slashed they have not spent a lot of time in Washington."

Perfect setup, right? All that "time in Washington" (which, by the way, was a bad thing a few days ago) and nothing to show for it but more spending every single year. Here it comes:

"Obama: I just want to make this point, Jim. John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow."

The transcript doesn't quite capture the trail-off at the end, but it was disappointing. I hope the next time this question arises (and it will, because McCain gets pretty excited about cutting agency spending) Obama's got a better answer queued up.

- Missed opportunities aside, Obama sounded focused and completely assured on foreign policy, and I am entirely sure that I would feel comfortable with him making decisions about when to negotiate and with whom, and about his ability to really reach out and improve America's standing in the eyes of the understandably distrustful world community. I can't say that about McCain anymore. His actions over the last few weeks and even last night should be enough to give anyone pause. It didn't help that he stumbled over the Iranian president's name a few times (although to be fair it is a tough name), but I suppose that's better than changing the Pakistanti president's name entirely (McCain called him Kadari, his name is Zardari - close, but no cigar).

- On the whole, I think it was basically a tie. And a tie, in this case, works to Obama's favor. He had to show that he could hold his own on foreign policy against John McCain, and he did that, plus some. McCain's attempts to denigrate Obama's judgment came across as petulant and nasty, and his unwillingness to look Obama in the eye was just more of the same.

If you missed the debate, the full transcript is here, and C-SPAN's Debate Hub has video, analysis, and much more. Now on to the next: Biden and Palin will meet next Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT.


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