Initially I thought that McCain was going to run roughshod over Obama, since McCain clearly came out not only aggressively but also having some well-rehearsed attack lines. I think McCain carried the attack for most of the debate and degrees of rhetorical control for much of the first half of the debate. However, from about two-fifths of the way through until the end, I think Obama did a better job controlling the terms of the debate but, as importantly, its tenor. In good part, and this has been the case in my opinion throughout the campaign, Obama has had more solid and better-spoken positions on most issues, and has carried those well into the debates. But tonight, as with the other debates, Obama and McCain differentiated themselves on more than some policies but, as with the other debates and their respective campaigns, their demeanor. I’m not that big on this but it does matter an awful lot, especially to undecideds. Obama simply comports himself in a better, more calm, focused, better-spoken, presidential manner than McCain; consistently so. McCain was intent on coming out swinging and fighting, and he did that with lines such as that, if Obama wanted to run against Bush, he should have done so four years ago. That’s a strong, clever line that scored well. It’s also difficult to refute that McCain has been increasingly closely tied to Bush when he not only voted with him 91% of the time, but also repeatedly hugged him on stage and reversed various positions to pander to the far right.
I think the debate turned on a few points. McCain held sway on aggression if not persuasion for about the first half hour. It turned around the time McCain and Obama were asked about negativity within the campaigns, and there’s been plenty of that to go around. McCain charged out with the stuff about Obama’s alleged ties to Ayers at the same time that he said he wasn’t interested in some has-been 60s radical, then speciously claimed that ACORN was trying to propagate the biggest voter fraud this country has perhaps ever seen. Really? Not the 2000 election with Florida, not 2004 with the intentionally corrupt Diebold electronic voting machines that could and did switch and lose votes, but ACORN? That took nerve, and was just ridiculous on its face. (More about ACORN perhaps tomorrow, when I have the time) Obama handled the Ayers smears well–that he was all of eight when Ayers was involved in the radical, violent fringe left Weather Underground, that he and others including Republicans who were friends of McCain served on an education initiative with Ayers, that Obama repudiated Ayers’s past, that Obama had various and bipartisan confidants for policy (I’m no fan of gratuitous bipartisanship, personally, but this probably scored well with undecideds), that McCain’s campaign personnel admitted that they had to switch subjects from the economic crisis or lose and that such tactics say more about McCain’s campaign than Obama himself.
I also think that McCain’s pandering to veterans and other supporters, as if Obama was smearing them and others at his rallies, was off base. Obama clearly wasn’t talking about them but those who have clearly shouted threatening and hateful comments. While it’s possible, as FAUX News has alleged, that some outside Obama rallies might have worn misogynistic anti-Palin T-shirts, I’d rather see evidence of what would clearly be inexcusable than trust a media “outfit” that circulated an internal memo alerting staff to “be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents [who] must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled congress” the day after Democrats regained control of Congress in November 2006. Give me actual proof, please.
I thought Obama positively controlled debate and at times hammered McCain on health care, abortion, possible supreme court appointments, and education–essentials of domestic policy. McCain looked genuinely shocked and confused about Obama’s response to small-business health care provisions based on Obama’s description of his plan. During the follow-up section on health care, Obama completely dominated the discussion and with details, while McCain blithely railed against government-run health care. Obama had details, McCain had attacks and little else, revealing something as the night wore on. It wasn’t just that McCain had attack lines, it’s that he increasingly just had attack lines. McCain’s follow-ups were often pointed jobs and short on actual policy specifics–not always, but often. Obama responded very well and clearly to McCain’s line that Obama was in favor of partial-birth abortions by discussing in detail how it was that Obama voted against an Illinois bill to ban such procedures by saying that Illinois law already had such laws in place making such a bill unnecessary, and focusing on concerns for the health of women, to which McCain responded with a chuckle and the attempt to portray Obama’s answer as rhetorical sleight of hand. More was at stake than that, regardless of how people feel about a serious subject such as abortion, and I’m inclined to agree with Chris Matthews’s post-debate statement that McCain probably lost women voters with that response. McCain made it seem as though he was downplaying the health of women, or at the very least Obama’s concern about it, by chuckling then changing the subject from what is a core concern among women–health during any procedures, on abortion or anything medically related. Not good. Obama himself had a good line with his statement that “children are not an interest group” when discussing a McCain staffer’s reference to not increasing educaiton funding as not appeasing interest groups.
In all, if you wanted McCain to come out swinging and fighting, he did that by attacking a lot and he surely fired up his partisans. If you wanted Obama to be bold, that didn’t happen in the first half hour, but he came on later in the debate, spoke to his own base but also looked to poach votes from the right over issues such as teachers’ pay-for-performance (an atrocious idea for lots of reasons, especially in a testing-heavy climate that ignores so many subjects–another thing over which I disagree with Obama, Joe). Snap polls favor Obama by a wide margin, especially and crucially among nominal independents, I suspect in no small part because McCain is long on anger and attack and short on actual prescriptions, and Obama, while at times unspecific (and I believe he suffered in the first part of the debate by starting out slowly and trotting out the same lines he’s been rehashing from the first two debates, while McCain’s attacks were at least fresh if mostly baseless), is completely cool under pressure. Obama even passed up possible attacks and attacking retorts, laying off Palin for the most part–except for her role in ‘othering’ Obama but avoiding attacking her thorough lack of fitness for high office.
Like the first two presidential debates, this wasn’t a make-or-break debate. But this is bad for McCain, for it had to be make for him. He had to fundamentally change the terms and tenor of the debate in his favor and, while he struck with some verbal jabs, Obama warmed to respond and more often than not did so successfully. I loved when McCain attacked Obama on free trade by attacking Obama’s failure to support the alleged “no-brainer” of free trade with Colombia, to which Obama brought up human rights for one of the very few times in the debates, reminding Americans of the thousands of trade unionists who have been murdered by right-wing death squads and the Colombian government in the last two decades, and the lack of protections for workers in Colombia under the agreement. McCain’s response? Nothing on the subject. But remind workers about how you care about them, McCain.
People just aren’t buying that or much else from the self-professed “Straight Talk Express,” and that’s not good news less than three weeks away from November 4. I know I’m partisan, but I also think this is accurate.