September 26, 2008

Debate Reaction

In fact, I was reasonably impressed with both candidates during the debate. I found myself gravitating more to McCain than Obama, but both men appeared intelligent, well-versed on the issues, and able to distinguish themselves. I was left with a feeling of some confidence that regardless of which man wins, there will be a confident and capable hand at the helm of government.

The format was a little bit weird. The moderator tried to get the candidates to speak to one another directly, but that didn't really work very well. Neither candidate seemed to do much more than make token forays at one another, and I think that was for the best. At a few points, each exceeded their time and broke the "rules" of the debate -- I think McCain did this a whole lot more than Obama did, although we should bear in mind that they weren't going for forensic points, they are going for political ones, so breaking the rules of the debate is sometimes a good political move. McCain broke the rules at the right times -- when he was getting in his licks on Obama.

How truthful were the candidates' characterizations of one another? Probably not all that much. How truthful were they in describing their own platforms? A little bit better, but again likely not 100% accurate. I have a great deal of difficulty believing that Obama will give 95% of Americans a tax cut while paying for all of the expanded government programs he's talking about. McCain did really well hammering on the fiscal responsibility issues and I was very pleased to see that issue given so much prominence. Given recent events, it's hardly surprising that both candidates have elevated the importance of the economy in their presentations.

Obama did not flourish as much as I thought he would. I think he does better when he has longer stretches of time to talk. A two-minute block of time is too long to just have a sound bite but it's also not long enough to really dig in to Obama's ideas.

On foreign policy, it's very interesting to see that Obama still has to do a lot of dancing with his previous statements about the meetings with hostile foreign leaders, something I marked nearly a year ago as a significant gaffe. What he actually says makes some sense, but politically, it's a lot of explaining himself -- it takes parsing and careful understanding to see that he really isn't describing anything more than diplomacy as it is normally done. That doesn't bode well for him in terms of political appeals.

What bodes well for him is that McCain's grasp of the bank failure crisis is fundamentally the White House line. Voters as a whole have lost confidence in the Bush Administration's ability to handle anything -- probably to a degree that is actually unwarranted. But again, perception is different than reality. If Bush suggested the right idea, most people would presume it was an error and resist it for that reason alone. Politically, McCain needs to find something in the Bush plan to object to and offer some plausible suggestion to make it better. (Whether that is actually the optimal policy or not, I don't know and I, like most voters, lack the sophistication to really decide on anyway. I'm talking politics here, not policy.) So because Obama can comfortably cast himself as opposed to both corporate welfare and the Bush Administration, he can easily stand back and say that the Wall Street bailout is a wild gamble with intolerably high stakes, and build voter confidence in the Democrats' ability to handle the economy.

I came of age politically in the 1980's and in California, so the idea of Democrats being perceived as the party more worthy of trust with economic issues just doesn't feel right. But that seems to be how the political winds are blowing. People remember prosperity under Clinton and struggles under Bush. And there is talk now of comparing our current situation to the Great Depression, which seems both premature and exaggerated at this point in time. But then again, we do not and cannot know what the future may bring. I can see why Obama would like to make this election seem like 1932.

Overall, it seems to me the debate is a net gain for McCain. I have two caveats to that verdict. First, McCain is again trailing Obama in the polls, and debates tend to favor a trailing candidate rather than the front-runner. Second, I have a center-right political perspective, and McCain comes from a center-right perspective himself, where Obama comes from a center-left or just plain left position. I'm centrist enough to be willing to listen to ideas from that perspective and even see some of them as working out well. But the burden of persuasion is generally higher for a left-of-center idea than for a right-of-center idea for me. So I'm predisposed to walk away from the debate more pleased with McCain than Obama anyway. Trying to view things through that prism, I still think McCain did better than Obama.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Following a well-organized and moderated debate (kudos to Jim Lehrer and PBS), I decided to sleep on it before offering any commentary. My initial reaction was that neither candidate did very well. After reading many blog reactions I believe several Obama supporters (including myself) were too critical of his performance. I cannot speak for McCain supporters. To a certain extent I think this is understandable and to be expected, and I don't necessarily believe it's such a bad thing. I believe the most ardent supporters on both sides hold their candidates to stricter, albeit sometimes unrealistic, standards. There's nothing wrong with wanting your candidate to excel, but there really isn't any need for your candidate to try to crush his opponent.

In retrospect, I believe both candidates did what they had to do in the first debate. I think Obama looked, acted, and spoke like someone who could be president. And I believe McCain lived up to (maybe exceeded) expectations considering his reputation for economic issues and the possibility of a debate postponement. McCain was on the offensive and attacked Obama's character because he is currently trailing in a majority of national and state polls. I don't mind McCain being on the offensive, but I do take issue with his character attacks.

Anyway, I thought both candidates demonstrated knowledge of the issues at hand regardless if anyone agrees with them or not. And I believe McCain, with a few exceptions, was speaking to his base more than Obama. I think this benefits McCain more because that is how Republicans win elections. That is exactly how they won in 2000 and 2004.

Overall, I thought McCain looked the most uncomfortable on stage. I believe this involves many factors: he's trailing, he realizes he has to play by the Republican playbook to a certain extent, he's admitted he's not very knowledgable about the economy, and the economy is not very good for a candidate who is from the same party whose had most of the control the last eight years.

Debate Scorecard and winners:
Presentation: Obama
Demeanor: Obama
Knowledge of Issues: Tie
Red Meat: McCain
Expectations: McCain

Overall: Tie
Obama's strengths were overall image and knowledge of issues.
McCain's strengths were meeting expectations and knowledge of issues.