Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Volunteer this: Live-blogging the second Obama-McCain debate

By Michael J.W. Stickings

UPDATED FREQUENTLY -- PLEASE ADD YOUR COMMENTS AND LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK/THOUGHT OF THE DEBATE AND THE REACTION TO IT.

7:59 pm - Good evening, everyone. Well, here we are again, just an hour away from Obama-McCain 2, the town-hall tussle in Nashville, Tennessee, home of, among other things, the Predators of the NHL. I went a bit nuts live-blogging the veep debate last week -- I was in insane blogging mode for several hours. Given the fact that I've been unwell the past few days, I'm not sure how much energy I'll have for this, but I'll give it a go. I'm sure I'll get into it once it's underway, and I'll update this post frequently throughout the course of the debate -- I was updating every couple of minutes during the veep debate -- as well as afterwards. My veep post ended late, at 12:42 pm. I suspect it'll be much the same tonight.

8:06 pm - A few quick thoughts before we get started. Obviously, the McCain-Palin campaign has decided to go negative, but it is mostly Palin who is leading the smearfest against Obama. What they want to do, evidently, is shift the race away from the economy, where McCain lags well behind Obama (a new poll shows that people see Obama as by far the more compassionate candidate), and towards character. Basically, they want the race to be a culture war in microcosm. Here's how I put it yesterday: "a character clash, with McCain the war hero and POW (as we are constantly reminded, because he really does exploit his past for personal gain), along with Palin the all-American hockey mom, up against Obama the dangerous, uppity black guy with the imposing black wife and the Muslim middle name who hangs out with terrorists and hates America, along with Biden the consummate Washington insider." In a typically insightful post, Mustang Bobby also looked yesterday at how McCain is "turning the page," or trying to.

Look for McCain tonight to play to his strengths in a format that will allow him to do just that. He likes the town-hall format, and I suspect he'll try to wrap himself in his maverick/moderate/reformer myth. This will be a warmer McCain than the nasty, brutish, and short one who showed up for the first debate. With Palin rousing (and arousing) the base, it is McCain's job to try to win over independents (specifically, the undecideds who make up the town-hall audience). The economy isn't exactly a good "issue" for him, so he'll offer vague platitudes instead of detailed policy prescriptions, but his avuncular appeal (to others, certainly not to me) should serve him well tonight.

As for Obama, he needs to come across as not just engaged but intimately compassionate. He tends to be a bit too detached at times, preferring lofty rhetoric and soaring vision over one-on-one accessibility. I would make the case that his policies are themselves a reflection of a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, but he needs to translate them into a more direct approach. The country is suffering. People are suffering. It's a difficult and challenging time, and they're scared. Obama needs to tap into that tonight. He needs to show that he genuinely understands what's going on out there -- I know he does, but he needs to show it. He needs to show his policies, how he himself, will address the uncertainty and insecurity, the day-to-day worries, of people who are having trouble paying their bills and putting food on the table, let alone sending their kids to college and planning for retirement.

8:32 pm - Then again, I wouldn't put it past McCain to be angry and aggressive tonight -- all with that stupid grin of his, of course. He's been nasty, brutish, and short throughout his entire career, and now he's also desperate and seemingly "losing it," as Mustang Bobby put it today. At the very least, expect McCain to hide behind "character" and "leadership," if not to attack Obama directly (though he might).

Josh Marshall: "As we saw yesterday, John McCain's latest gambit is to juice up his and Palin's crowds into calling Obama a 'terrorist', hurling racial epithets at black reporters (presumably, there aren't many in attendance as supporters), or just random calls for murder."

8:58 pm - David Gergen, just now on CNN: Voters want "generalized empathy" from the two candidates. Good point.

9:00 pm - AND HERE WE GO...

9:03 pm - "What's the fastest, most positive solution?" Yes, I suspect many people want a quick-fix. Obama comes out swinging, blaming the Bush policies of the past eight years and tying McCain to them. Fine, but he needs to connect with the voters and their concerns, not go (too) partisan. Yes, yes, focus on the middle class. Help for homeowners. Not bad, but not a great start.

9:06 pm - McCain starts out sounding fairly empathetic. It's all vague, but he does pretty well with this format.

9:08 pm - McCain says he knows what to do, but it's not at all clear he does. How exactly do you raise house prices? And what's the connection to creating jobs? Again, he sounds good so far, but there's actually nothing behind his words. Ah, and he's coming out against Washington. Surprise, surprise. How long has he been there? Since 1982?

9:10 pm - Obama: tax cut for middle-class, working Americans. This is a good issue for him.

9:11 pm - McCain really does seem to care, doesn't he. When asked a question, he addresses the questioner directly. But he's bringing up the phony suspension of his campaign again. See, this is the softer McCain I talked about above. He's avuncular, he puts on that "caring" tone of voice. I'm not sure it helps, though, to go after Fannie and Freddie. Most people don't know what they are or do. So far, the CNN tracker of Ohio independents at the bottom of the screen seems to be favouring Obama.

9:13 pm - Good. Obama is going "practical." What does the drying up of the credit market mean? People want to know what that means to them personally. And he's criticizing McCain for supporting excessive deregulation. I'm not sure how that will resonate with voters. I mean, what do regulation and deregulation even mean? Obama needs to... do what he's doing now: "People don't want to see politicians pointing fingers." Overall, though, this isn't an empathetic enough answer for low-information voters. And in the follow-up he continues talking about regulating financial markets. See, voters respond when he talks bread-and-butter stuff: jobs, health care, education.

Our friend betmo says neither one is "specific" enough. I agree. Too much vagueness so far.

9:19 pm - Obama goes after Bush again. He needs to do this, I suppose, but he needs to pivot quickly into more positive policy prescriptions. What will he do? How will he respond to the deep uncertainty out there? How will he work for you?

9:21 pm - McCain refers to himself as "a consistent reformer." It's largely a myth -- he doesn't really have "a clear record of bipartisanship" -- but the myth resonates, not least because the media perpetuate it. Okay, he's getting aggressive, attacking Obama's spending record, trying to paint him as a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal. It seems petty. And he keeps saying he knows "how to fix the economy" without offering any specifics.

9:24 pm - Energy, health care, entitlement spending (Medicare, social security). What are the priorities? McCain's just offering hollow rhetoric. Obama focuses on energy -- high gas prices (excellent point to raise), high oil prices benefit Iran and Venezuela, end dependence on Middle Eastern oil in ten years. This is very good, very strong, and it works with independents. Health care is priority #2. Education is #3 -- another good issue for him, especially with women.

Dan Tobin: "McCain's taking a Palinesque approach to answering these questions. It's kind of hilarious seeing CNN post the question and trying to link it to anything close to what McCain's talking about. Also, as I've been predicting since Obama became the nominee, next to him, in HD, McCain looks 500 years old. It's Luke Skywalker vs Yoda."

Creature: "McCain seems out of breath when he talks."

9:29 pm - Sacrifices, sacrifices. Vague generalities from McCain. Spending cuts, basically. But where?

9:31 pm - And the first reference to 9/11 comes from... Obama. Bush didn't offer "a call to service" (just a call to shopping) after 9/11. We need to think about how we use energy -- including clean-coal technology, off-shore drilling, nuclear energy. But it's more personal than that. It's about saving energy in the home, saving energy at a personal level. He's doing well with this. And his service plan (Peace Corps, volunteering) resonates, I think.

9:33 pm - Obama's right. It's not enough to talk about earmarks. The revenue side matters, too, and McCain supported Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. I was just about to say he needed to give an example, and he did -- the teacher who makes, like, 30K a year. That's fine, but he could have contrasted that teacher with the CEO making millions.

9:36 pm - Figuring out Obama on taxes is "like nailing Jello to the wall," says McCain. Not funny. "Let not raise anybody's taxes." Oh, he's not in favour of lowering taxes on the wealthy? Huh. Ah, he pulls out his $5,000 tax credit for health care. Obama needs to hit him hard on this.

9:38 pm - Obama wants to talk taxes: "The Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one." Funny. Obama defends his plan: middle-class tax cut, help for small businesses. Whereas McCain wants to give tax cuts to CEOs and big corporations. Solid point.

9:42 pm - I'm listening to McCain, but I have no idea what he's saying. It's so vague, like a string of talking points about how he's taking on his party leadership, etc. etc.

9:43 pm - McCain claims he has disagreed with the Bush administration on global warming and green energy. But he doesn't really know what he's talking about. Just more nuclear power -- because he served on ships with nuclear power? Because that proves it's safe? Terrible answer. Obama calls it "one of the biggest challenges of our times." A challenge and and opportunity. "A new energy economy" -- 5 million jobs, "an engine that drives us into the future." It's a national security issue -- energy independence -- and Obama does have a strong record on this: solar, nuclear, etc. McCain has voted 23 times against funding alternative energy. And it isn't just drilling -- contrary to what the drill-happy crazies like Palin think. Very good answer.

9:48 pm - Do we need a "Manhattan Project" for alternative energy? What the hell's McCain talking about? Earmarks again? Drilling again? (It's not fundamental economics. Drilling wouldn't make much of a difference for decades.)

9:49 pm - Health care: Is it a marketable commodity? A good opening for Obama, as this is an issue he needs to stress tonight. Health care costs are "breaking families' budgets." I don't like Obama's health-care plan as much as Hillary's, but at least it's close to universal, and at least he's talking about lowering premiums and extending coverage to those who don't have it. McCain calls this "one of the major challenges" America faces, but Obama is right about his stupid $5,000 tax credit. Do people really want to have to seek out health care in the market? Obama wants to impose "mandates." It's more big-government fearmongering, of course. Health care shouldn't be a commodity. Yes, you cross state lines to buy other things, but health care? It's a right, not a commodity. McCain's talking about "choice," but, really, what choice would there be?

9:55 pm - Tom Brokaw, who's doing a so-so job so far, read my mind: Is health care a right, a responsibility, or a privilege? It's a right, says Obama. Very good. And there's still choice in Obama's plan. (Of course, there's choice up here in Canada, too, even with our government-run health insurance system.) And good for him to go after the insurance companies. You shouldn't have to argue with insurance companies. You should be protected. And insurance companies will take every opportunity to screw you.

Dan Tobin: "What's up with that random shot at Biden's hair plugs? McCain's just plain mean!"

Frequent commenter Bob: "I'm in a 'my friends' drinking party, and I am about to pass out." Stay with us, Bob, stay with us!

10:01 pm - McCain thinks he's right about everything and that Obama's wrong about everything. Wait, he just took the time to say that shit? Isn't this a debate about the economy? Yet he's attacking Obama for not being ready? It's about judgement, Obama reminds us, and he's right. McCain has a history of wrong judgement.

Creature: "I'm watching on CNN and according to their opinion tracker thingie Obama just hit it out of the park on health care. Yes, it's a right. He's right. Good stuff."

Bob: "Obama -- Health care should be a right. TKO for Obama -- the ref, I mean Brokaw, should stop it."

10:04 pm - Now we're on to the appropriate use of U.S. military force. Wait, why? Isn't there anything more to say about the economy? Did McCain bribe Brokaw?

10:06 pm - Anyway, what's clear is that Obama isn't some pacifist dove. It is necessary to use force around the world, particularly to stop genocide. McCain agrees, but takes the opportunity to praise himself: What is needed is "a cool head." Yes, he said that without a shred of irony. And of course he talks about the troops. It's vague, but the best answer he's given so far. (And Bob just took another drink.)

10:08 pm - A question about Pakistan. "That's the central front on terrorism." This is an opportunity for Obama to talk about how the Iraq War was an unnecessary diversion from the real war on terror, namely, the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in and around Afghanistan. But Obama's taking a tough line on this. He would use military force inside Pakistan to take out bin Laden, if necessary (that is, if Pakistan wasn't prepared to help).

10:11 pm - Wait, is McCain's hero Reagan or Teddy Roosevelt? And he just attacked Obama for talking loudly. Silly line of attack. McCain again references Petraeus. But what did any of that mean? "Talk softly and carry a big stick"? So... what? Obama responds: No one called for the invasion of Pakistan. But if Pakistan is "unable or unwilling," America needs to act. Obama defends himself against McCain's charge that he's unready. McCain stupidly says "thanks" when Obama lists off what McCain thinks of himself, but Obama is right that McCain has a long history of hot-headedness in the area of foreign policy: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, etc. Oh, right, he understands what it's like to send America's troops into harm's way. "I know how to get him," McCain says about bin Laden. "I'm going to act responsibly." But it's all talk. There's nothing to back it up. He's just playing the McCain war hero card again, and he doesn't have any sort of plan to deal with the very real threats facing America and the world.

10:18 pm - What to do about Afghanistan. McCain thinks the strategy in Iraq -- i.e., the surge -- is what is needed in Afghanistan. Palin made the same point, incoherently, last week. Military leaders have stressed that an Iraq-like surge wouldn't work in Afghanistan.

Bob: "McCain knows how to get Bin Ladin, and he's gonna do it? Couldn't he have told Bush his little secret sometime during the past 7 years?"

LindaBeth: "I thought Obama did great on articulating his tax plan, as a response to McCain's insistence that "Obama will raise taxes". Sure...but for top 5% or what-not. I also thought he did well on health care, but I wish he would have emphasized even more the scary negatives on McCain's plan-pre-existing conditions, that the $5,000 credit will need to pay for a $10-15,000 policy, that those who need it most (the sick) may not even be able to get coverage, etc. I know he mentioned it in some fashion, but I wanted even more emphasis.

10:21 pm - McCain did fairly well on Russia. I'll admit it, he (sometimes) knows his stuff. Or, at least, he knows how to articulate himself quite well on such matters, to seem like he knows his stuff. But moral support for Georgia means little. Obama obviously has a much more nuanced understanding of Russia and the region, as of foreign policy and national security generally. Unlike Obama, what McCain didn't get at was the root causes of the conflict in Georgia.

10:23 pm - More on Russia and Putin. Is Russia an evil empire? Obama is definitely right that Russia has exhibited evil behaviour. McCain waffles.

Bob: "My friend in our drinking game has Petraeus, and he just threw up and then passed out. I'm not sure if it was the booze, or hearing the name Lieberman."

10:25 pm - McCain gets a question on Iran/Israel from someone in the military. And of course he goes all warm and fuzzy. McCain tosses out his silly League of Democracies idea, but he doesn't actually answer the question. All he says is that we shouldn't allow another Holocaust. Palin made the same point last week. (Good to know they have the same talking points.) But no one's talking about a second Holocaust. This is about what to do if Iran were to attack Israel. And Obama is right to say that the military option must be on the table but that the U.S. must work diplomatically with other countries to impose sanctions on Iran. And must talk directly not just with friends but with enemies. It's the carrot-and-stick approach, and it's a good one. Excellent answer. Not just for Iran but for North Korea.

10:30 pm - A "zen-like" question from Peggy in New Hampshire: "What don't you know?" Um, okay. Thanks. Obama generally avoids the question and talks instead about his personal story. Then again, it's about time to wrap up, so maybe he just wanted to provide a lasting impression.

10:32 pm - What doesn't McCain know? What all of us don't know. Duh. And of course it's his turn to provide a lasting impression: lifetime of service, experience ("I know what it's like..."), etc. "I believe in this country." Fantastic.

10:34 pm - And that's it. Done. (Update: CNN has the full transcript here.)

Initial reaction: Obama won.

Creature, posting over at his place: "Obama wiped the floor with McCain. Even on foreign policy Obama seemed more knowledgeable and the steadier hand. Obama came across as in-touch and empathic. Human, if you will. McCain came off like a petulant, hopeless, fear-mongering robot. McCain needed a game changer tonight, he did not get it. This presidential race is all but over."

But will the pundits agree?

10:36 pm - Blitzer mentions McCain's obvious disdain for Obama, evident throughout the debate. I agree, but it's hardly a surprise. McCain is a bitter, angry man. Gergen: flat and repetitious. Perhaps, at times. He thinks McCain was more effective than he was last time, but "flat" on foreign policy. Obama was "composed," "made many arguments that related well to women," and came out "modestly ahead." King notes that McCain is more comfortable with this format, but "nothing big or new" from either one. (He's such a genius, the man with the Magic Board -- as if debates are the forum to present big new ideas.) Carville thinks Obama won. Bennett criticizes the McCain campaign for not "being up to the man" (the myth of the man, I would add). Castellanos callis it "a status quo debate." Begala noted that Obama linked McCain to Bush, "again and again," whereas McCain was "scattershot." Bennett: McCain didn't do enough. Borger, another genius: Obama did very well on energy and health care. Gergen: Obama did a better job "talking about how people live."

I'm worried now. I've been criticizing the pundits throughout much of this campaign -- and certainly after the first two debates. Is is possible that I agree with them now? Are they finally right? Or are they wrong? Will the people actually say that McCain won? Let me just say this: I think Obama did much better than the pundits are saying. I think he won quite easily.

10:50 pm - For more live-blogging, see Hilzoy over at Political Animal. If you want some commentary from the right, see Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air. See also Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein.

11:00 pm - Toobin: Bad format, bad Brokaw. I generally agree. So much emphasis on the rules. I'd prefer, perhaps, a more conversational format, with the candidates sitting a table actually discussing issues with an engaged moderator. Not that the campaigns would ever allow anything like that.

11:38 pm - Just a few final observations. I think I was running on adrenaline throughout the debate, and I'm feeling awfully woozy at the moment.

Olbermann is right, I think, to highlight McCain's newfangled plan to buy up $300 billion worth of failed mortgages. This won't be popular with the neo-liberals on the right, as Maddow noted, including many of those in the Republican Party who opposed the Bailout Bill.

Overall, the commentary on MSNBC from Olbermann, Fineman, Maddow, and now Robinson has been pretty good. (Even from Mitchell -- Andrea, that is, who reported on the McCain spin and who rarely has anything genuinely insightful to say.) McCain looked old and tired and certainly didn't do anything to change the game, as they say.

Taegan Goddard has a round-up of reaction from the likes of Mark Halperin (narrow victory for Obama) and Marc Ambinder (same). Once again, I disagree with these arbiters and expressers of the CW. And so, indeed, do the American people.

This time, the people are with the pundits, more or less (if not the CW of Halperin and Ambinder), if the polls are to be believed. A CBS poll gives the debate to Obama 40-26. A CNN poll gives it to Obama 54-30 -- and the internals look good for Obama, too: McCain wins by a small margin on who is best to deal with terrorism, but Obama wins big on the economy. Also: "A majority, 54 percent, said Obama seemed to be the stronger leader during the debate, to 43 percent for McCain. By a greater than two to one margin -- 65 percent to 28 percent -- viewers thought Obama was more likeable during the debate... A majority of debate watchers polled thought Obama was more intelligent, by a 57 percent to 25 percent margin over McCain."

So, overall, Obama was seen as the stronger leader, more likeable, more intelligent, and less negative -- and his favourable rating went up while McCain's stayed the same.

I realize these polls aren't perfectly accurate snapshots, but, regardless, these are fantastic numbers for Obama.

12:02 am - Chris Matthews now, with Hardball. Even Roger Simon thinks Obama won. McCain "didn't quite" win, says Fineman. Now there's the understatement of the night.

12:03 am - You may have noticed, or maybe not, that McCain at one point referred to Obama as "that one." He's done that on the campaign trail before, so it was nothing new, but it was a pretty appalling, and pretty condescending and dismissive (if not racially tinged) thing to say. Creature will post the clip shortly -- and there it is.

12:05 am - I want to stress again that I think Obama did extremely well on foreign policy tonight. Especially to defend his lack of formal experience, and to defend himself against McCain's obviously contempt and dismissal, by challenging McCain's judgement where it matters: Iraq, Iran, North Korea. (And Matthew and Fineman are discussing it now. It was clearly one of Obama's strongest moments.) Even McCain's answer on Russia was trumped by Obama's focus on the root causes of the crisis in Georgia.

For McCain, it's all about... McCain. About his supposed character and leadership and experience. Beyond that, he rarely offers any details. It's just, "I know what to do..." He wants voters to take him at his word, to trust him, but what exactly has he done to deserve their trust? And, given just how dangerous his policies are -- more Bush, even more Bush, including a neocon foreign policy agenda -- voters would be right not to trust him at all. Indeed, it's clear he doesn't want to get into the details because he doesn't really want to discuss his policies at all -- because, on the issues, voters are with Obama. McCain wants this to be an election about personality, about character -- as I mentioned above, in one of the first entries to this post. But Obama is standing firm. And, tonight, he did talk about the issues and did talk policy. And he did so decisively and convincingly. And, clearly, an overwhelming majority of the people agree.

12:15 am - Overall, it was a strong debate for Obama. No, it wasn't a "game-changer," and, no, it wasn't the fireworks display that many in the media wanted, but Obama did what he had to do, did it extremely well, and won the debate easily. McCain may have been less visibly nasty than he was in the first debate, but he was vague and at times vindictive, spewing all the usual talking points -- no, he didn't mention Ayers or Wright, but he called Obama the most liberal member of the Senate (again) and tried to portray him as a tax-and-spend liberal. But it didn't work. Instead of coming across as an experienced leader, he came across as mean and petty.

12:21 am - Alright, that's it for me. Thanks to all of you for stopping by and thanks to the co-bloggers and commenters for providing some interesting (and amusing) insight. (Bob, be well!) We'll be back later today -- it's already past midnight where I am -- with additional reaction to the debate, to the race generally, and, as always, to so much else..

Good night, everyone.

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