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September 27, 2008

McCain-Obama First Debate Impressions

I decided not to live blog last night's debate because I wanted to simply sit and watch, and then have time to reflect on what I'd seen. Also, so many people do this now (and arguably far better than I would) that I thought you all could dispense with my snarking in real time.

So, what did you all think?


Our rural Maryland audience of two thought McCain won - narrowly - for the following reasons, which I realize are very likely not the criteria most people use to judge such ventures:

1. In almost every instance, McCain's answers appeared to be better thought out, more calm, focused, and deliberate. What most impressed both of us was McCain's ability to annotate and back up his arguments pretty much all of the time with specifics: facts, historical analogies, stories. Watching the two men respond to questions they were not given in advance, two things jumped out at me:

- John McCain is just so much better at thinking on his feet than Obama is. His answers were more fluid and detailed and he has mastered what I consider to be an essential debating tactic: you never jump right into a question. Obama did this several times and then his mouth ran slightly ahead of his brain and he because a bit confused. It is so much more effective to speak slowly.

- Much of the time, McCain drove the debate on his own terms and Obama was forced into the passive role; responding to McCain's initiative instead of taking control. This doesn't exactly make him look like a leader - it makes him look like a follower.

The truly fascinating thing about this is that I'm not sure that will register on many people. Viewers tend to see things through the subjective lens of their personalities and experiences. Where I saw McCain looking calm, seasoned, and unfailingly polite many others saw him as being coldly dismissive of "that poor young black man who he seemed to resent even having to debate". This is so odd to me: here are two men whose job ought to be convincing America they have the knowledge, toughness, and smarts to lead the world's greatest superpower, and yet it is somehow hitting below the belt for the candidate with more experience to point out that he has... [gasp!] more experience and (by virtue of his years of experience) a better grasp of world affairs? This may well be the defining difference between the progressive outlook and the conservative one.

I don't view the Presidency as something I'm willing to award on "niceness" or the sympathy vote - you have to convince me you're the better qualified candidate. When one candidate happens to be black, I would think that to refrain from using your best advantage - experience - against him out of some silly fear that "You lack the experience to understand this as well as I do" will be equated to "You are too stupid to understand this as well as I do" is tantamount to patronizing him on account of his skin color. I don't think anyone (let alone John McCain) thinks Obama is unintelligent. To that end, so long as you are polite there is nothing wrong with pointing out that you do, in fact, have more experience.

And this was a remarkably civil debate due to the self restraint shown by both parties and to the professionalism of the moderator. Again, I must point out that some of the focus groups (as well as Obama supporters) were put off by McCain's supposed refusal to look at Obama. I never even noticed that - it seems to me the reaction of folks who are determined to see a slight offered where none was intended. I see no mention of the fact (which struck me forcefully) that Obama kept referring to McCain as "John" while McCain called Obama, "Senator Obama", giving him the full honorific. My husband commented on the same thing after the debate ended. The "John" seemed very patronizing to me, and it grated. Also the channel I watched featured a split screen and Obama kept making disgusted faces while McCain was talking, very much like a little kid making faces during class.

This was very unprofessional and unbecoming. It made him look childish and petulant, and when he - repeatedly - interrupted and tried to talk over McCain when McCain had the floor, he looked even ruder. I did not see McCain interrupting Obama. He let him finish his sentences. So perceptions can be wildly different and are, I suspect, very much influenced by our backgrounds and values.

About midway through the debate Obama became visibly irritated.

I thought this was huge for McCain, who badly needed to counteract the Obama campaign's attempt to portray him as "angry" and "volatile". He came across as neither. Obama was very self possessed and urbane for most of the debate. I think that redounded to his credit. But towards the end, he was visibly rattled and angry. He began stuttering. That make him look indecisive, less experienced and less in control of himself than McCain.


I think Obama did slightly better on the economy. McCain has two problems here:

1. Conservatives seem constitutionally incapable of articulating HOW conservative economic principles serve the self interest of the average voter. McCain came closest to doing this when he riposted on lowering the corporate tax rate. Pointing out that we pay one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world was huge - if you are a business, you will want to locate where the cost of doing business is lowest. This allows you to price your goods and services competitively, especially against third world nations who don't offer their workers generous wages or liberal benefit packages. What conservatives just_cannot_seem_to_do is explain that if we force employers to provide wages that are too high and benefits that are too expensive, we drive jobs overseas where the costs of doing business are lower.

What conservatives can't seem to explain to the average voter is that poor people cannot hire them, and the kind of person with the drive and talent to start a successful business is not working for the joy of handing over the benefits of his labor to the federal government. There is a healthy balance in there somewhere between leaving workers vulnerable to predatory employment practices (which do exist, by the way) and hamstringing American entrepreneurs.

The Democrats are extremely good at harnessing class resentment (mostly against 'the rich'). But a huge segment of the American voting populace also bitterly resents those who refuse to work, yet expect a handout. There is a way to make the argument that conservatives want to reward hard work, enable those who DO work hard to keep the fruits of their productive labor, and that these policies incent the behavior that helps people move up the ladder and be successful.

Until John McCain learns to make these arguments in a compelling way, this remains his Achilles heel and may well lose him the election.

2. On foreign policy, McCain's expertise was commanding. I think we saw the benefit of years and years of experience here - he was easily able to summon examples to back up his arguments, where Obama was left mouthing vague generalities. Unfortunately as Grim so astutely points out, most Americans aren't focused on foreign policy this week and what's worse, have not only never cared much about the war, but are now heartily sick of it. If McCain wants to leverage one of his biggest advantages, he needs to connect it in voters' minds to something they care about in a compelling way.

On the Russia/Georgia question in particular, it was apparent that Obama really had no idea what McCain was talking about and had brought a water pistol to a gun fight. I thought that was devastating.

On the 'preconditions' issue, aside from my utter mystification at the preoccupation with Henry Kissinger (Who cares what he said? Who made Kissinger the final authority on anything?) Obama was unable to summon much to match McCain's historical examples. I found them convincing, but suspect people who decide this sort of thing based on how they feel about "aggressive diplomacy" [What the hell is aggressive diplomacy anyway? Do what I say or you'll... you'll... you'll get Yet Another Stern Talking-to! Take THAT, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!!!!} will find their opinions unchanged :p

McCain was effective at first on fighting corruption and earmarks, but he belabored the point. It is apparent that he genuinely believes saving the taxpayers money is his calling. But does the average taxpayer care all that much? Does it appeal to their bottom-line self interest?

I doubt it. It helped show his earnest and idealistic side, which is always a weakness for Republicans, but it risked (when he went on and on about it) making him look like a bit of a zealot, and what was more damaging IMO, as someone who has been in Congress just a bit too long any may have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Loved the line about using the veto, however. Catchy.

I though both candidates fumbled the "greatest lessons of this war" question, and I thought McCain's answer hurt him worse than Obama's.

I would have answered so differently. I suspect you could get a million different answers - I know my husband's was different than mine. But my answer would have played to McCain's strengths and pointed up Obama's weaknesses:

To me, the greatest lesson of this war is that human beings continually make the same mistakes they've made all through history with regard to war. As we learn to fight smarter, the bar only gets raised and consequently our "failures" are magnified through the lens of our now-inflated expectations. But the overriding lesson here is as old as time: conviction wins wars.

It is the will to win, as shown by George Bush even after years of strategies that proved to be misguided that can turn around even a situation everyone believed to be intractable:

As recounted in Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within," George W. Bush stiffed his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who opposed the surge, and made Gen. Keane his back channel to the Petraeus command in Baghdad. The Pentagon "almost presided over an American defeat in Iraq, and Jack Keane helped save the day," says Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Born into an English-Irish family in Manhattan, Gen. Keane was raised on the Yankees and went up to Fordham for college. In his 37 years in the military he served in Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Iraq was another story. Soon after Baghdad fell he noted "a little bit of arrogance," and says he and other senior military leaders "let down" their political masters by failing to anticipate that Saddam Hussein's loyalists made preparations for the insurgency.

Three months into the war, Gen. Keane visited Iraq as the Army's deputy chief of staff. "I felt we had a low-level insurgency on our hands and I had a long plane ride home as a result of it, because I thought my Army was ill-prepared to fight that kind of war and it would take time for us to figure it out." His was a lonely view at the time. Gen. Keane passed on a promotion to Army chief for personal reasons but kept up with Iraq.

For the next three years, Donald Rumsfeld and the senior generals pushed a "short-war" scenario, "which was to get a political solution quickly, transition to the Iraqis security quickly, and get out," says Gen. Keane. "It didn't work. And why didn't it work? Because the enemy voted and they took advantage. The fact that we did not adjust to what the enemy was doing to us and the Iraqis were not capable of standing by themselves -- that was our major failure. . . . It took us all a while to understand the war and [that] we had the wrong strategy to fight it. Where I parted from those leaders [at the Pentagon] is when we knew the facts -- and the facts were pretty evident in 2005 and compelling in 2006 -- and those facts were simply that we could not protect the population and the levels of violence were just out of control."

In late 2006, after the midterm election debacle for Republicans, pressure rose for a quick if dishonorable exit from Iraq. Gen. Keane met Frederick Kagan, who was putting together a report on an alternative strategy for Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute. On Dec. 11, both men found themselves at the White House to push the plan. Congress, the Joint Chiefs, Iraq commander Gen. George Casey and the Iraq Study Group all wanted a fast drawdown. President Bush ignored their advice. Gen. Petraeus was sent out in February to oversee the new, risky and politically unpopular surge.

Even Gen. Keane didn't expect the new strategy to work so fast. "It's a stunning turnaround, and I think people will study it for years because it's unparalleled in counterinsurgency practice," he says. "All the gains we've achieved against al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency, the Iranians in the south are sustainable" -- a slight pause here -- "if we're smart about it and not let them regroup and get back into it."

Gen. Keane wants to make sure people understand why the surge worked. "I have a theory" about the unexpectedly fast turnaround, he says. "Whether they be Sunni, Shia or Kurd, anyone who was being touched by that war after four years was fed up with it. And I think once a solution was being provided, once they saw the Americans were truly willing to take risks and die to protect their women and children and their way of life, they decided one, to protect the Americans, and two, to turn in the enemies that were around them who were intimidating and terrorizing them; that gave them the courage to do it."

He adds that the so-called Sunni Awakening, and the effective surrender of Shia radical Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army, depended upon the surge. "I'm not sure [the Sunni Awakening] would have spread to the other provinces without the U.S. [military] presence. We needed forces that we didn't previously have for the Sunnis to be able to rely on us to protect them." Sadr saw his lieutenants killed in the American push, and didn't want to share their fate.

Looking ahead, Gen. Keane still considers a robust American ground force "the secret to success" in Iraq. "It is a myth for people to assert that by pulling away from the Iraqis, by pulling away from the Iraqi political process, that somehow that becomes a catalyst to do things that they would not do because of our presence. That is fundamentally wrong. It is our presence that is helping Iraqis move forward."

The fact is that Obama was wrong - not once, but repeatedly and stubbornly - on the Surge.

As McCain correctly pointed out, the question on so many issues is NOT (as Obama kept trying to steer it to) "How did we get here?" but "What are we going to do about this?"

THAT is why we have a president - not to look backwards with recriminations and fingerpointing but to act decisively when needed and offer solutions, and most importantly, to offer firm leadership when the going gets tough. This is where Obama is most vulnerable and this is the argument McCain needs to make - on the economy, on foreign policy, you name it - if he wants to win this election.

Update: Interesting... Glenn Reynolds on the post-debate spin cycle:

Interestingly, McCain was up several on InTrade right after the debate, but now he's dropped a bit. I presume that means that traders who watched the debate thought that he'd done better than the ensuing spin suggested.

He's got a lot of great debate links - just start at the top and work your way down. This was my impression too this morning. I couldn't help noticing the media I heard last night and even a few liberal bloggers initially thought McCain did better... until the focus group results came in.

What does that say?

Posted by Cassandra at September 27, 2008 10:20 AM

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McCain returned again & again to "cutting government spending." The problem is, there are now a very large number of people who don't pay much in taxes (other than the FICA stuff) and hence don't feel much personal stake in the spending level. He SHOULD have devoted more time to the ways in which Democratic ideas are harmful to the growth of the economy and of employment.

Posted by: david foster at September 27, 2008 12:01 PM

I agree that McCain should have elaborated on why Ireland is a good example of business taxation compared to the U.S. Also, why do any of us work? Unless you are retired, the sheer exhiliration of getting up yet another day gets old after awhile so what is in that process for each individual? Oh yeah, I forgot, it is improving yourself and your family and maybe retiring early with lots of money and sleeping in.

As a veteran I took exception to BHO petulantly saying "I have a bracelet too" and then looking at it for the name on the bracelet. You can almost hear him cursing whoever got the bracelet for not getting an easier name to pronounce. His "Me too" attitude cheapens the name of the warrior he carries. But then, the bracelet was actually carrying BHO which is poetic justice.

Additionally, I think McCain could have done better explaining his response to an existential threat to our economy by putting his campaign on hold. That is part of his military training as in "All hands battle stations" and "Heave to" in response to the economic threat and D.C. summit.

McCain is a leader. BHO is a product of the Chicago political machine that raised him. Interesting to watch him fall apart like a cheap suit when the going got tough during the foreign policy portion...and that was an expensive suit.

Posted by: vet66 at September 27, 2008 12:10 PM

This may well be the defining difference between the progressive outlook and the conservative one.

What defines the Left depends on which personality the Left has adopted as primary.

For example, the Left is perfectly happy with pointing out that Sarah isn't "experienced".

The Democrats are extremely good at harnessing class resentment (mostly against 'the rich').

That's a nice coup given that Democrats are the "rich" that they decry.

but are now heartily sick of it.

Soviet demoralization works.

(Who cares what he said? Who made Kissinger the final authority on anything?)

It's basic conquer and divide tacitcs. Get your enemies fighting amongst themselves figuring out who said what: less effort on your part when fighting them.

I though both candidates fumbled the "greatest lessons of this war" question, and I thought McCain's answer hurt him worse than Obama's.

personally, I think the greatest lessons of this war concerns fighting criminals, terrorists, and other forces that cannot simply be bombed into submission here in this nation. When the military shows it can be done overseas, the civilian sector should bone up and get their own affairs straight, especially when those affairs are far less risky and chaotic.

What does that say?

It says counter-insurgency is needed to fight the entrenched interests in America.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 27, 2008 12:51 PM

There is a way to make the argument that conservatives want to reward hard work, enable those who DO work hard to keep the fruits of their productive labor, and that these policies incent the behavior that helps people move up the ladder and be successful.

Yes but the reason "Wall Street" is such an effective rallying cry against Republicans is that what Wall Street does is often perceived as not being "productive labor". This is not fair since stocks and capital are absolutely essential. However the current financial crisis with its revelations of financial instruments that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered "productive" will make that view of Wall Street more widely accepted and an even more potent weapon against Republicans.

It would be nice if McCain could do a clearer job of pinpointing his attack on greed on Wall Street. He should praise the Wall Street firms and the banks and mutual funds that do the job they're designed to do and stay solvent doing it while reserving his ire - and any policy proposals - for those who have driven the financial system to its knees attempting to make money without providing any value.

Posted by: Elise at September 27, 2008 01:03 PM

If you (or me, in this instance) were to take a few steps back and analyze the debate with a cursory knowledge of both men, this is my analysis:

McCain is functionally a 'conservative' but with a lot of conflicting views on government, the economy and politics in general. He is generally a social conservative, but I think that he does not have a cohesive philosophical view of the the world (much like George Bush, who also does not). He is experienced and knowledgeable, able to to make and understand policy and its consequences. But he lacks a unifying idea, which is why he seems to fall short in illuminating the basic flaws in Obama's remarks.

Obama is philosphically coherent, as a socially-left, collectivist liberal Democrat. He said a few things last night that might make the Netroots cringe with respect to foreign policy, but this is the first debate. The last debate is what most people will remember before the election.
Obama is not experienced in any sense of the word. Most of his answers sound like something that comes out of college bull-sessions among poli-sci students with their own false sense of "how things work". My analysis of his responses makes me even more worried about our situation in the world should he be elected. My fear is that he will have many intelligent advisers, and listen to the last one that makes the most convincing argument. He has no inner core of knowledge and experience to draw on. But he does have fully formed ideological view of himself, politics and the world. It's just wrong, that's all, and that's what is scary.
Change his appearance, cadence and voice, and there is little difference between Obama, Kerry and Dukakis.

Who won? I think America lost. 180 million voting age adults and this is the best we can come up with?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 27, 2008 05:06 PM

... initially thought McCain did better... until the focus group results came in.

What does that say?

First Kennedy-Nixon debate. Nixon "won" until viewer-on-the-couch weighed in.

I did not watch, but did read the transcript. If you were not following news blogs (eg did not know that Bush/McC tried to get more regulation for Fannie and Freddie contrary to BHO[D] unsupported statements) it seemes basically a tossup, not changing anyone's opinion. If you had been following, you'd wonder why both were shadow-boxing. So, a good [and fairly] clean first round with a split decision.

Posted by: teqjack at September 27, 2008 06:39 PM

I thought it was a good thing that they showed Obama's face while McCain was talking too...it definitely undermined his credibility, such as 'tis.

My gal told me after the debate that it had definitely confirmed her own support for McCain as well...

Posted by: camojack at September 29, 2008 01:33 AM

My wife is not as focused on politics as I, so even though she's leaning Obama as well, I use her reactions as a barometer for what regular people might see. She noticed two things that I found interesting.

1-McCain really liked to bundle up 4 or 5 (sometimes unrelated) critiques of Obama in a two minute period. This meant that Obama had trouble responding to all of them in a way that makes sense. (It's always harder to attack than to refute an attack). While this is a good debate technique, it led my wife to get confused about what was being argued, and the connections between points. She put then frustration on McCain instead of Obama (but then, we do favor Obama anyway)

2-She loves McCains fiscal record, but doesn't see that applying to our issues.... just now buying a house, looking to have a child and paying for health care, etc. McCain needs to do a better job of explaining how goverment fiscal policy can help the average individual feel more secure in the economy.

Still, we both agree that this has been the best presidential debates in 5-10 years. We also felt it was pretty evenly divided.

Posted by: alchemist at September 29, 2008 10:53 AM

That's pretty astute.

Overall, I saw McCain's responses as far more detailed (and he definitely had Obama on the defensive for the entire debate).

And I think you're right regarding the economy: conservative fiscal policy generally does little to "help" ordinary people in the way you cite. But then it's our position that most measures intended to "help" people usually backfire (take the "affordable housing" initiatives, for instance). If you can't afford a house on your own, the government "helps" you afford a house?

Ummmm... OK. So they waive the down payment and extend you a loan that you couldn't have afforded on your own. And since banks don't like extending risky loans that have a higher rate of default (for good reason- poorer people aren't bad people - they just don't have the money to pay!) then they pass laws penalizing banks that don't extend enough risky loans. Eventually, the market comes up with even riskier schemes to mitigate away the risk by spreading the default risk via credit default swaps, housing prices rise faster than inflation until the number of bad loans causes the default rate to rise, and the housing bubble bursts.


Isn't that how we got into this crisis in the first place?

Maybe having government "help" us do things we ought to do ourselves isn't such a good idea?

As someone who has dealt with a government sponsored health care system (the military one) does your wife really want Walter Reed as the model for her health care? Or Canada, where everyone has to wait for routine procedures? Or Great Britain?

She really ought to think about that one :p Because that is what she is asking for.

Otherwise, I agree with you! Great observations. I think the economy will always be the hardest for conservatives because we don't promise a rose garden, whereas the Democrats promise that government "cares" and will "help them". I think conservatives need to show that this "caring" isn't as productive or helpful as people think it will be.

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 11:09 AM

Again, I must point out that some of the focus groups (as well as Obama supporters) were put off by McCain's supposed refusal to look at Obama. I never even noticed that - it seems to me the reaction of folks who are determined to see a slight offered where none was intended.

I didn't bother watching the debates (as I generally think if you don't know where the two stand on the issues already, you aren't paying attention) but I thought Public Speaking 101 preached "Always address your audience"?

This wasn't a working group where each was trying to convince the other. Don't talk to the other guy: *He's* not the one who might vote for you.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at September 29, 2008 12:14 PM

I agree with you :p

I was just trying to be fair. I wouldn't have looked at my opponent either - I would have looked at the audience (i.e., the folks I was trying to convince). It's not an insult; it's a matter of who you are really talking to.

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 01:40 PM

I agree. I think McCain clearly won the debate, but unfortunately lost the spin.

Posted by: Emily at September 29, 2008 11:14 PM