With the polls shifting rapidly in Obama's favor, tonight's second presidential debate was considered a must-win for McCain. Yet it seems clear to me he was soundly defeated....by Tom Brokaw. That's right, in a night where both candidates repeated the same claims over and over again, it was moderator Tom Brokaw who was the real winner. Whether scolding the candidates like petulant children for breaking the rules or asking tough and worthy questions, Brokaw was on top. He may have given Obama and McCain that follow-up, but his look of scorn showed who was really in charge.
The town hall format caused a lot of the candidates' problems. With no follow-ups or rebuttals allowed, it quickly became clear that new strategies were needed for success. Even more than in the last debate, it was obvious when a candidate ignored a question to return to his platform. Attacking the other candidate too often made it look like they had no answers of their own. Yet despite how little these strategies worked, Obama and McCain just couldn't help themselves.
With less experience in town halls, Obama suffered most from the format. Obama continually forgot that he wasn't in a traditional debate, always harking back to McCain's previous answer. In the first half, he suffered from an acute case of Sarah Palin Syndrome: ignoring the question in a clunky and obvious way. He also has yet to learn from his biggest difficulty in the first debate: responding to McCain's accusations. He let himself play defense by continually correcting McCain, even when it wasn't his turn. Here he could learn a thing from Joe Biden, who sometimes left Palin uncorrected if it would make him look better. Lastly, Obama suffered from continually trying to break the rules. His worst moment came when he fought to respond to McCain's comments on taxes, then talked about it anyway during a Social Security question. He seemed to cross Brokaw more than McCain, which doesn't make him look good.
But if the rules threw Obama off, he did gain by talking directly to voters. He talked to them with respect and appeared presidential throughout. The voters may have also helped him talk clearer than he has in the past, free of the Al Gore need to live in statistics. When he stuck to the topic, he had many shining moments. In discussing health care, he laid out his plan clearly and made it personal, scoring him a big win in the debate. Foreign policy gave him many strong moments, whether promising to chase Al Qaeda or bringing up the United States' moral need to stop genocide. When he went beyond repeating his well-worn statements, the debate was his.
McCain had neither the lows nor the highs of Obama, giving a performance free of embarrassment or inspiration. The town hall format is one McCain loves, so you could see the joy in his face as he walked around the room and said "my friends" about ten times more than usual. But many of his efforts to connect to voters seemed to fall flat. He kept trying to make jokes that came out more condescending than funny (I'm not referring to calling Obama "that one," which seems overblown). He may have thought he was treating the audience like friends, but sometimes he just seemed to be turning himself into Sarah Palin.
His paraphrasing of Teddy Roosevelt, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," may have worked against him. I don't know about the stick, but there was a whole lot of soft speaking coming from McCain. When not blasting Obama on taxes or namedropping General Petraeus and Ronald Reagan, McCain's vocal cadence dropped to some pretty soporific levels. But what did wake me up were some "what the fuck" statements. First off, did anyone else hear McCain refer to some of the $700 billion going to terrorists, with no follow-up? Second, his plan to buy up all the faulty mortgages: has he talked about that before or did he just make that up on the spot? Third: a repetition of his promise to freeze all spending. Is anyone going to ask him to explain that? None of these is really a misstep, but it continues to seem odd to me the way he makes provocative statements without putting any context around them.
With strengths and weaknesses on both sides, it seems to me like tonight's unlikely to change anyone's mind. Most of the debate felt like a rerun of the first one, with even some of the same lines given (Obama's hatchet line was effective the first time, but less so now). There were no gaffes on either side, but nothing to really win people over either. And in both their favor, there were no mentions of Bill Ayers or the Keating Five. But with the polls what they are, a tie favors Obama. McCain's only got one more shot to turn the momentum around.