Saturday, September 27, 2008
Gut Reactions on the First Debate
Tonight's debate is not the type where you can clearly say that one candidate won while the other lost. For the most part, Obama and McCain both stayed true to the message they are sending voters and repeated the points we've heard many times before. To the crowd I watched with this meant a pretty expected and uninteresting debate. But behind that cool, politician exterior, the candidates did let out a few moments of debate drama gold. And for that reason, it's worth looking at how they fared.
The biggest irony of the debate was that McCain's finest half hour was the first one, focused on the economy. During the first third, McCain had complete and utter control of the discussion, whipping out accusation after accusation against Obama. The fact that most of the accusations were either untrue or heavily distorted only added to his dominance: they forced Obama to go on the defensive. Obama spent so much time correcting McCain's false assertions that he couldn't make any of his own. By putting Obama on the defensive, McCain made him look weak, which is the best thing a Republican can do to a Democrat.
But as the second third hit and the focus shifted to international politics, the playing field became a bit more even. Suddenly, Obama went on the offense, speaking out strongly against the Iraq War and in favor of stopping Al Qaeda. But McCain fought right back, name-dropping General Petraeus on a biminutely basis and voicing his support of the surge. But it was also at this point that McCain began to make some mistakes. His constant references to Reagan might have mobilized the Republican basis, but his continued insistence on mentioning politicians last relevant before I was born seem unlikely to help. More significantly, his suggestion that the bailout be paid for through a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran's affairs, and something else seemed out of the blue and erratic. Beyond the obvious pandering to veterans, it showed a McCain willing to act on temper that we would see again very shortly.
If the score so far is first third to McCain and second third tied, I have to give the final third to Obama. Here Obama made some of his more popular points, such as advocating (for the 6th time or so) alternative energy and speaking of restoring America's reputation in the world. But while these are points McCain essentially agrees upon, he failed to connect himself to them. When asked how he felt about America's position in the world, he ignored the question to talk yet again about Iraq, missing a surefire way to gain some immediate approval. He also provided the night's most shameful display of pandering by speaking against a "second Holocaust" in an attempt to show he loves Israel more than Obama. If any Jew falls for that, I will be deeply ashamed for my people. But his weakest point in the debate came when Obama attempted to quote Henry Kissinger against him. McCain's interrupting, outraged tirade about how he's known Kissinger since before Obama could read made him look not like a president but like a child throwing a temper tantrum. John McCain of the erratic temper showed his face today as Obama asked moderator Jim Lehrer to ask a new question.
So overall, I expect the debate to go down as a draw, as each candidate ably outlined their plan of how to fix our country while ignoring every question Lehrer asked. But forgive me if, perhaps through bias, I feel that Obama came out of this debate stronger. They may have been an even match in policy, but Obama passed what many Americans look at as the stronger test: who can appear more presidential. While McCain yelled and spent his listening time looking like he wanted to punch Obama, Obama remained cool and collected throughout. Their closing statements each aptly summed up their performances. Obama summed up his platform again, while McCain mentioned his Vietnam experience again. Obama mostly played it safe tonight, giving a solid if perhaps uninspiring performance. But he also did nothing to embarass himself, which cannot be said of the bold emotionality of John McCain.
UPDATE: I watched the Kissinger clip again and admit that I may have (greatly) exaggerated McCain's temperament. It may have been less a case of temper taking over than of just being very firm with his statements. But even if McCain did not lose it as I suggested, he still looked angry a good portion of the debate and did not appear as presidential as Obama.