Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Presidential Debate Number Two: McCain Improves, Still Loses

My overall reaction to the debate was pretty identical to David Gergen's on CNN: surprisingly, I thought McCain responded better to the financial crisis than Obama; surprisingly, I thought Obama had better foreign policy answers than McCain. But in the end, I found the debate a tendentious, boring rehash of stump speeches when Americans were looking for a bigger picture during this crisis.

That's not to say that Obama didn't play it well, and give, perhaps, the strongest debate performance I've seen from him. He's obviously working on his performance skills, and playing it safe, trying to run out the clock with his lead. No need to take big risks.

McCain studied up on his economic policies, but he needed to take bigger risks - needed to lay out a dramatic larger vision of leadership in a time of crisis - in order to stop Obama's momentum. Because he didn't do that, he lost, and I'd call it a big loss.

On specifics:

On the first question - about what to do next to address the economic crisis - with his plan to buy mortgages, I thought McCain came out strong. It's a good plan, and we should have heard more about it. Obama, disappointingly, didn't answer the question and doesn't seem to have a plan of what to do next. I know the guy plays it cool, but that was my biggest disappointment of the night. I want Obama to be thinking about this problem and ready with solutions. Right now he's just thinking about coasting into November. That's probably what he needs to do to hold on to his lead, but I'd like to see him start acting like a potential President on this crisis nevertheless.

McCain seemed to hold up well on the economy for the next thirty minutes. At this point I would have said he was ahead. His first miscue: saying he'd appoint Meg Wittman as Secretary of the Treasury, the same day that eBay announced a 1000-person layoff. Master of political timing, McCain is not.

But it was with the question of what sacrifices you would ask Americans to make that Obama really started to take off. Here, Obama talked about what most people are yearning for: a calling to a higher purpose. McCain couldn't offer that, because his philosophy isn't based on any kind of communal sacrifice or larger vision. And it was clear, from this moment forward, that this wasn't just a contest of personalities: Obama is offering the policies and positions that Americans want; McCain simply isn't. Doesn't matter how well he tries to sell it.

From there, McCain went downhill. Saying that nuclear power is a "green" energy policy just doesn't cut it, I think, and most voters know that. On health care, Obama was masterful - even though there's a lot to be said for McCain's plan, even though I probably like McCain's plan better - McCain just didn't seem to have his heart in it, or even understand it's benefits very well; Obama clearly connects with voters on this issue, and Obama wiped the mat with him on that.

When it came to foreign policy, Obama made vast strides over his first debate. He clearly and succinctly tied Iraq to our economic crisis - my most cathartic moment of the debate. He had better responses for his policies toward Pakistan and Iran. He made a clear distinction about McCain's views versus his and didn't let McCain bully him into being painted as a pansy-ass liberal defeatist. Good for Obama.

So both men had good moments; even if voters already give Obama the economic edge and the scores on foreign policy here weighed more. And with the exception of Obama's brief call to service, both men really avoided speaking to Americans with real leadership, and by the end of the night, no one could be blamed for running to the bathroom or picking up a magazine. But in the end, what came to be clearest, was the very very deep contrast in styles. Obama was loose, forward thinking, open, commanding. McCain was authoritative, harsh, backward-looking, and constrained. If McCain had come to put his hand on my back like he did one of the questioners at the end, I would have cringed. He was just giving off such tense vibes of harshness. It was this contrast in style and body language that spoke most, I think, at this debate. And afterwards, voters have clearly said they prefer Obama's style.

Obama had one very clear important zinger during the night. It was his reference to McCain's "twenty-six years in Washington" as insufficient to bring the change we need against the policies that have brought us to this moment. McCain was speechless at that - he should have made the opposite argument, that inexperience won't bring change - but instead he had to change the subject. It wasn't the line, which we've heard before: it was Obama's astute sense of timing and delivery. And I had to say, wow: I've never seen a politician so skillfully turn experience into a liability. He plunged the dagger in, with that line. And now, I don't think it's possible for McCain to recover.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

McCain is demonstrating that the surest way to make a frustrated old dog show his true colors is to back him into a corner