The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Friday, September 26, 2008

First Debate Wrap-up

First of all, let's all agree that Jim Lehrer did an admirable job as moderator, mostly in a less-is-more fashion. He'd ask a question, then he'd let the candidates pretty much have at it, without butting in with warnings about time limits and so on. My lone complaint, though, was his Russert-ian question about what plans the two candidates would cut back on because of the giant banking bailout. Both candidates believe that all their respective plans are important, and neither was going to admit to making a real commitment to not pursuing something they've claimed to be a high priority to them for months/years, no matter how many times Lehrer pressed the question (4 times). McCain wildly proposed a "spending freeze" gimmick (a dumb idea), while Obama steered clear of the bait altogether.

All the talk on the network wrap-ups as to who "won" the debate, on "points" or whatever (boxing metaphors abound), is somewhat misplaced. The main issue here is with expectations, particularly for Obama. He has the "change" mantle, and people want to vote for him, but his big assignment for tonight's debate -- the foreign policy debate -- was to come across as a credible leader on international issues. Someone who spoke with demonstrable knowledge and expertise on the issues of the world (as opposed to, say, mentioning his home state's proximity to Russia). To do this, he didn't have to 'beat' McCain on what's supposed to be the old man's issue; he merely had to hang with him. And nobody who watched that debate could conceivably argue that Obama didn't do that tonight. In other words, Obama passed that "commander in chief test" Hillary put forth all those months ago during the primary campaign.

This was the night McCain was supposed to have a decisive victory, and that simply didn't happen. It doesn't matter if Obama won by a little or McCain won by a little. The only result that would have helped McCain would have been a clear win, or a mega gaffe on Obama's part, and neither of those things happened.

I didn't recall any one comment on Obama's part that was hissy-fit-caliber for the right wing echo chamber. I recall the first of the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004; the general consensus was that Kerry won handily that night, but the right-wing media seized on an abstract comment of Kerry's about how America's actions need to pass "the global test", interpreting it literally as some sort of international veto on the American military. I didn't hear anything from Obama's responses tonight that could be isolated like that. Certainly the McCain surrogates I saw on TV after the debate couldn't come up with anything.

Except for a stupid video montage of Obama expressing agreement with McCain at various points in the debate, but that's not really anything of importance, given that it was a deliberate disarming rhetorical tactic on Barack's part.

(Rachel Maddow, just now, made a good catch on MSNBC: McCain, in an almost throwaway manner -- "sure" -- said that yes, he would vote for the Wall Street bailout)

One superficial, but revealing discussion coming up... For those of you who watched the debate on a channel that kept the two candidates on a split-screen -- NBC did this for most of the debate -- you probably saw what I saw. McCain was, for lack of better words, rude and churlish. A variety of pundits noticed that McCain never once looked at Obama through the entire debate. His awkward and disrespectful smirk returned, sometimes coupled with a snicker. Let me put it this way: If Chris Matthews has to ask about McCain, "Do you think he was too troll-like tonight?", that pretty much seals the deal, doesn't it? I think McCain's posture gave us a preview of what we'll soon be seeing on Saturday Night Live.

And McCain's repeated talking-point-driven mantra that Obama "doesn't understand" and is "naive" is one of those things that falls apart when the very next thing an uncommitted voter sees is Obama explaining his position on a foreign policy issues in detail, with clear command of the facts and a full recognition of the stakes at hand.

Tonight's polls...

CNN: Obama wins on all fronts

CBS: Obama wins among undecideds

MediaCurves: Obama wins debate 61-39

No link, but longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz's focus group on FoxNews leaned Obama as well.

But again, he didn't need to win this debate, he just needed to hold is own, and he did that and then some.

LATE THOUGHT: I wonder if the GOP's concerted attempt to ridicule Obama for not being able to talk without a teleprompter might have been the wrong tactic to employ.


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