Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Presidential Debate Three: Strike Three, McCain Out

Ok - well, seeing as an Obama staffer had leaked a spin memo before the debate, I was thinking of writing my review before the debate. As it turns out, I probably could have, since - on the substance questions - it was all a rehash of debates one and two. I will say, however, that this format for the debate - two men at the table, facing each other - worked best, gave us the best sense of an actual "debate" of issues rather than stump speeches. In 2012, I'd like to see them all in this format. And I think Schieffer was the best moderator, able to get the candidates to talk without to each other without having to step in over them (or the candidates learned to do this themselves after the first two debates), though Schieffer asked some of the dumbest questions - and wasted some of the most critical opportunities - of any of the debates.

Okay, about some of those dumb questions. On the non-substance questions...on the question, specifically, that most people were waiting for (Ayers, Acorn) - McCain took the Obama rope-a-dope; he went there. And lost big.

I was surprised he did it. And Obama smiled when he did it. Because he knew, by going negative and nasty, McCain had just put the crown on Obama's coronation.

For me, this moment told me all I needed to know: Obama has the discipline to be President. McCain doesn't. And if the polls are any indication, most Americans had the same reaction. And I think this will be the only thing people end up talking about from debate three.

For illustration sake, let's break down the eight questions discussed:

Q 1. The economic plans. McCain acknowledged that his mortgage plan is Clinton's plan. Obama didn't acknowledge that his mortgage plan is also Clinton's plan, though he should have. Big winner: Hillary Clinton. On the charges from McCain that Obama is conducting class warfare, Obama missed his best comeback: that the last eight years of Bush have been class warfare on the middle-class. But Obama's strategy was to remain cool, not get into a fist-fight with McCain. A bit too cool here, if you ask me, but Schieffer gave them a chance to move on to Q2.

Q2. Deficit. Ok, nothing new here - rehash of debate 1. No one wants to look at the nasty wreck of our deficit. Too scary. Move on, move on, nothing to see here.... Though Obama did seems to be warming up.

Q3. Whose Campaign Is Nastier. The dynamic here was so interesting. Schieffer goads McCain into bringing up Ayers. McCain remains restrained but starts the red lights flashing bringing up the non-winner of the John Lewis comments as if this is an example of Obama nastiness. Then the question turns to Obama - and Obama parses the John Lewis comments exactly right, but with enough implications about McCain's shenanigans to get under McCain's skin. Then the question bounces back to McCain, and you can see his mind turn: I know I'm going to lose if I bring up Ayers, but I just gotta do it, I just gotta. And he did! And Obama smiled and laughed - the laugh that says: you are so goddamned stupid, you just threw me another three points. And low and behold if the McCain campaign didn't just implode right there in those three minutes. And give Obama his opportunity to a) explain away Ayers and Acorn with a masterful and short reply and then b) be magnanimous and say, we shouldn't be talking about this crap, we should be talking about things that matter, like the sucky economy. BAMB! Nothing else be said. Okay - let's all go home now.

Q4. Whose VP Sucks More? Okay, Bill Schieffer, can we call this a stacked question? Obama sings the long list of Biden qualifications, but unlike McCain and Ayers, fails to take the bait and dish Palin. Over to McCain: gives sing-songy Palin defense, tries vainly to attack Biden, and can't answer the question that Palin is qualified to be President. Ouch: another McCain drubbing. Now the tide is drowning him. But this wasn't a fair question. The difference is so stark, it's like asking, which of you is more likely to need Depends sooner?

Q5. Climate Change/Energy. Here, Obama starts to talks to the camera, and now a larger view of Obama starts to emerge. People on CNN said this wasn't Obama's best debate. People on PBS said he did ok. I disagree. Starting at this moment, Obama, for me, started to transcend any performance I'd seen from him previously. He was so good - so, well, assured, convincing, and well, god-damned Presidential, in a way that we had rarely in Bill Clinton's best moments, maybe in the Kennedy years, maybe under Roosevelt, but certainly rarely in my lifetime. He was just plain inspiring. And then it goes over to McCain, and all he can do is complain that Obama is just too eloquent. Is this the McCain platform? Anti-eloquence? Like, eliminating eloquence is what's going to restore our economy? I don't think anyone but McCain's family listened to a thing he had to say after that.

Q6. Health care. Once again, Obama is masterful on this issue, and McCain just sucks. After three debates, if health care is your issue, there is no chance in hell you'll vote for McCain.

Q7. Roe v Wade - but phrased as "would you be open to selecting a judge who didn't agree with you on this issue." Okay, I have to disqualify this question on the grounds it was the stupidest question I've ever heard in a debate. Is the premise that there are only qualified judges who take only one side of this issue? What a stupid premise - any President is going to select someone qualified but who agrees with them. What kind of stupid question? Finally the candidates had to maneuver this into talking about abortion positions etc, which really again led nowhere since most people have made up their minds on this issue. Let's just call this one a draw or dropped ball. With only eight questions, why couldn't we have skipped this an asked a follow up on the economy like, "what do you think are the most important things to do in your first 100 days to address our current economic crisis?"

Q8. Education. Okay - I have to give this last question to McCain. Basically, Obama ended up just agreeing with him, and he seemed to have the better points about vouchers, reform versus money, etc. (Interestingly, voters may have disagreed with me and given this point to Obama.)

Okay, so my final score: McCain 1, Obama 4, 3 Ties. But what's important here is that two of the four questions that Obama won were character questions. OBAMA BEAT MCCAIN ON THE CHARACTER ISSUES, AND BEAT HIM BADLY. On the policy issues, Obama come out slightly ahead. (Though if you weight health care and energy as more important than education - and I think that this comes up slightly higher on most people's priorities - then Obama comes out even more ahead. And since Obama benefits from trust of Democrats over Republicans on the recovery/deficit issues, a draw on those also favors Obama.)

Here's the key, though. McCain has decided to run a campaign based on character, not based on issues. And on this point, OBAMA CREAMED HIM tonight. McCain has not pressed his issues, so even if he had beaten Obama on these, he would have lost.

As I was talking with my husband afterwards we both thought about a point made on PBS. McCain made a big deal of the "Joe the Plumber" metaphor. What if McCain had used Palin not as a character assassin against Obama, but as a POSITIVE ONLY representative for Joe the Plumber. Have her go out talking about the economy from a successful, comfortable, middle-class perspective. DEPLOY HER not as a politician but as a "representative of the people" and let her talk to the press as a SPOKESPERSON FOR JOE. Wow. We both agreed, if McCain had done that, that would have been a hard play to beat. That would have really been, as Palin says, maverick-y.

Thinking about what a great opportunity that McCain has blown, how bad his strategy has been, how many mistakes he's made dealing with this crisis, we were both thinking how this election could have easily been very different, how we could very easily be talking, right now, whether Obama had any chance to squeak out a victory. McCain never saw Obama coming, never took him seriously, and never really got it that this year was not a year for Rovian politics, that something very different and much more heartfelt and authentic was required.

In the end, if Obama wins big, yes, much can be said about what a great, steady campaign Obama ran, and how he put away voters doubts at the debates. But I think many may miss the kinds of mistakes McCain made - not in picking Palin, but in going into a defensive crouch on both her and the economy. Not throwing out his team's bad strategy and sensing the country's mood. Not demonstrating himself how he could be a uniter, and reach not the base (the choice of Palin should have been enough for them), but the great middle, by speaking to people on issues and using both himself and Palin as representatives. By developing a clearer economic plan earlier. By going out and being positive. McCain really didn't do that, and in this last and final chance, he didn't do it once again.

No one can doubt now that the size of his loss will be historic.


beingajoe said...

Barack Obama performance made McCain look really unfit for office. All he did was moan, whine and point the finger. He gave inaccurate information about Obama. Had little to say on policy except I can do everything without any depth. He looked silly. I am glad Sarah Palin and SNl did him in!

Anonymous said...

the fact that anyone is praising McCain for his performance in the third debate proves that he and Palin have lowered people's expectations down to nothing (don't forget, the VP debates were a tie!)