Jason and I have a different take on the debate tonight, I think, though we really won’t know who won until the SNL parody tomorrow night. In general, it was a much more competitive debate than we have seen in the past two campaigns, but I my sense is that Barack Obama had a strong, but certainly not perfect performance. Senator McCain is a strong debater as well, but certainly didn’t do anything to suggest that he has the temperament to be President.
On the Issues
Let’s be honest. Barring a major Ford-style gaffe, the issues are rarely the most important part of these debates. Neither Obama nor McCain staked out anything new tonight on the issues, with both sticking pretty close to where they have been for the past two years.
On Iraq, I think Obama was most effective when going directly after McCain. His attack on McCain’s position on the war was dead-on, a textbook example of going after one of his opponent’s perceived strengths:
John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.
You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.
Given the grandstanding about the credit crisis this week, it was certainly telling that Senator McCain spent almost all of the time allotted to economic issues talking about his pet issue, earmarks. I certainly hope that both candidates are forced to speak in more depth about the bailout as the campaign continues.
On the Presentation/Persona
I can’t imagine that this debate will help Senator McCain with undecided voters. While we didn’t get to see any of the legendary McCain temper, his refusal to look directly at Senator Obama or even the camera at times was a tactical (or was that strategic?) blunder. It’s one thing for Senator McCain to claim to be bipartisan in his political philosophy, but hard to make it seem convincing when he seemed hardly able to veil his contempt for his opponent.
McCain’s constant attacks on Obama’s experience and knowledge will certainly play well with the base, who already believes that narrative. I just don’t think it will persuade voters in the middle, especially in the context of tonight’s debate, when Obama demonstrated an impressive knowledge about foreign policy. It was an especially risky strategy for McCain, given his difficulties with the names of the the leaders of Pakistan, Iran, and Spain.
I thought Obama seemed confident, and his command of facts was impressive. After the past eight years, the U.S. might just be ready for someone who’s unafraid to appear cerebral, and even cool in his decision making. I appreciated that, and his willingness to acknowledge places of agreement with Senator McCain. In fact, that sounded almost bipartisan.
Overall, my impression was that Obama was assertive and confident, while McCain was aggressive. I’d rather have the former. On the other hand, I can understand how some people might have been frustrated with Obama tonight. To some extent, it wasn’t dissimilar from his problem at the end of the Democratic primary, when he couldn’t land the knockout punch against Hilary Clinton.
That being said, I don’t Obama should change his strategy in the next two debates. I think the polls are going to show a widening lead for Obama, and it’s likely that McCain will become more aggressive in each successive debate, hoping to land a knockout. Obama’s best bet is to stay above the fray, even if the Chris Matthews of the world want him to show more emotion.
I’ve got faith that the American public has learned that an emotional response isn’t what we want from a President anymore; we’d like a little cool rationality.
John McCain: C+
Barack Obama: A-