Friday, September 26, 2008

Initial reflections on the first Obama-McCain debate

By Michael J.W. Stickings


I agree with Creature. McCain looked and sounded bitter, vindictive, and small. While Obama was presidential throughout, agreeing with McCain on occasion, exuding generosity and expansiveness and, above all, presenting a substantive articulation of his policies and positions, McCain dismissed him repeatedly as "naive," turning much of the debate into an ad hominem assault. He never even looked at Obama.

Which is not to say that Obama won, let alone won easily. I'd say it was roughly a draw, with McCain doing well at times, notably in presenting himself, however inaccurately, as a long-time maverick with tons of experience. As well, Obama could have done better connecting McCain to Bush on issues like tax cuts for the wealthy and Iraq, and stressing just how wrong McCain has been on those and other issues. (Obama didn't, perhaps because he couldn't, suggest, even implicitly, that McCain's volatile temperament makes him unfit for the Oval Office.) I'd also add that McCain did well on Russia and on support for veterans. Yes, I'll admit it, there were a few moments when McCain seemed fairly commanding, or at least fairly sure of himself, but he also seemed annoyed and angry. Contrary to Obama, who seemed frustrated with McCain's deceptions and misrepresentations.

Overall, though, I think Candy Crowley's right that it was all rather flat, especially the beginning.

Using the ubiquitous boxing metaphor, there was no knock-out punch from either side -- but, then, these debates don't lend themselves to such punches. (Although McCain's inability to pronounce the names Ahmadinejad (Iran) and Zardari (Pakistan) was pretty embarrassing.)

On the merits, though, I do think Obama won. He did well early on discussing the financial crisis, he did well on Iraq, he did well defending his position on talking to foreign leaders without preconditions (but with preparation), he did well on (alternative) energy, he did well on Russia and nuclear proliferation, and he did well on most other issues as well. Specifically, I thought his call for the restoration of America's image around the world was strong.

There are too many other points to mention here. We'll have more to come, but, in the meantime, make sure to check out the live-blogging over at Think Progress. Basically, McCain was full of it throughout the debate, and the good people at TP point out where and how.

But I'm not sure it matters much. The pundits are more or less split, from what I can tell. Chris Matthews at least pointed out McCain's meanness and smallness. But the rest of them are divided according to partisanship. David Gergen, somewhere in the un-partisan middle, seems to think it was more or less a draw, or at least that McCain needed to do better, given that foreign policy is his strength, or so it is assumed.

And of course it's not about the substance, it's about the perception. And the perception will be, I think, that both of them did okay.

UPDATE 1: My TMV colleague Elyas Bakhtiari notes that the early post-debate polls suggest that Obama won. I heard the same think on CNN not too long ago.

UPDATE 2: More on the post-debate polls:

-- CBS News: Poll Results Suggest More Uncommitted Voters Saw Obama As Debate Winner.

-- Time: What Sayeth the Undecideds?

-- TNR: Focus Groups, Undecideds For Obama (the Frank Luntz and Stanley Greenberg focus groups, along with a CNN poll).

Obama won "overwhelmingly," it seems, at least among undecideds.

UPDATE 3: Some additional reaction:

-- Kos: "The consensus seems clear: This was McCain's turf. He needed a solid victory, and he didn't get it. At best, it was a tie. And with the next debates focusing on economic issues, McCain will be in hostile territory. My interpretation of all of this is that Obama won via the expectations game, but was a draw on the substantive issues." (I still think Obama won on substance. It was a draw in terms of expectations and media perception.)

-- Marshall: "My take on this debate was that both candidates made their basic arguments clearly. They stuck to the points they're making on the campaign trail. Neither of these guys are powerful debaters but both held up well. I didn't see many real gaffes or mistakes... McCain didn't have any freak-out moments. But he did have that sneer and there did seem to be this thing where he was so contemptuous and angry at Obama that he couldn't get himself to make eye contact. I think we'll hear more about that. Angry, angry, angry. Part of the key here is that McCain is clearly miffed that he even has to debate or run again Obama. He thinks it's an insult."

-- Benen: "[I]f I were giving letter grades, I'd say Obama deserves an A-, while McCain might get a generous B." Overall, Obama won "on points."

-- Digby is blunt: "It's very hard for me to gauge this debate because to me John McCain is quite obviously a crazy, intemperate, nasty old bastard. He was sarcastic, contemptuous and patronizing."

-- Klein: Obama Wins Debate On Tactics and Strategies.

-- Ambinder: "The press will probably conclude that McCain did not fundamentally change impressions tonight. And that Obama held his own."

-- Todd: "[C]ount me impressed by both candidates... I wouldn't be surprised if the polls don't move much in either direction because neither candidate gave a reason why voters ought to stop listening and make their decision now."

-- Halperin calls it A- to B- for Obama.

UPDATE 4: CNN has the full transcript here.

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  • Since when is interrupting and raising your hand every few minutes when you get slammed for not understanding foreign policy being presidential. As an African American female, I was disappointed in Obama's reactions and how he carried himself. He was very rehearsed and had lines memorized but was not genuine or presidential in his responses. A Harvard education will only get you so far, life experience carries you the rest of the way.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:57 PM  

  • Not to mention how juvenile muttering into the microphone when it is the other candidate's turn "that is not what I said" etc. It was like watching a middle school kid throwing a fit when he realized McCain just made a strong point against him. He needs to learn composure and tact. He is naive in many ways. As stated above, Harvard education does not give one a life experience and understanding of foreign policy and this was very evident tonight.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:01 AM  

  • If anyone acted in a childish way, it was McCain, who spent much of the time ridiculing Obama and not even looking at him. What was Obama supposed to do, let McCain get away with his spin without interjecting?

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:05 AM  

  • Junvenile? McCain was laughing into the mic! And he interrupted more often then Obama. Obama allowed Mccain to tell war story after war story, which annoyed me. But when it came to lying on his position he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He interjected. One rule you should always remember, when someone is lying, watch their body language...McCain could not make or keep eye contact at no point. Obama called him out often and effectively. McCain had no answers...just more pandering and negative comments about Obama.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:13 AM  

  • First of all the first two comments are made by the same person, second of all for the first comment I doubt your a black female. Third of all I'm undecided and neither candidate convinced me to vote for either of them. What I cared about in this debate was the economy, and the only progress in a solution to the economy I saw was from Senator Obama.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:14 AM  

  • Some of your commentators made a note of Obama calling McCain by his first name vs. McCain using the more formal address of Sen. Obama.

    I don't think this is a matter of disrespect, but rather a generational thing. We have become a more informal type of people. I'm 56 and I remember calling my parents friends Mrs and Mr, but my friends kids call me Terri.

    Also, the internet has fostered a more informal society.

    Anyway, just a thought. It's something that I doubt anyone under 40 noticed.


    By Blogger Terri main, at 12:17 AM  

  • I agree, Anonymous #1. McCain was smirking much of the time. It was all very Bush-like.

    I repeat, though. I think it was a draw, more or less. Neither one of them did enough to win outright. The polls are leaning to Obama, but I doubt this debate will make much difference in the end. Obama does need to do better in the next two debates, though, which play to his strengths: economy and domestic policy.

    And to Anonymous #2. It's good to hear that you think Obams showed more in the way of progress. But I agree, he still need to do some convincing to win over more of you undecideds.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:28 AM  

  • I keep hearing Obama say that he was opposed to the War from the start as if he was in a position to put action behind his words. The fact is that he wasn't in the Senate when the decision had to be made about going to war. Based on the information that was available at that time, Biden, Clinton, and McCain voted to go to war. It was easy for Obama to talk when he wasn't in a position to make a crucial decision about it. Once we were there, the right thing to do was to finish what we started. Otherwise the entire region would have been destabilized. This is why McCain voted for the Surge. To help ensure that we meet our objective. Obama on the otherhand voted against the unpopular war. If his vote had won out it would have been disasterous for the region and our national security. You may disagree with me on the surge, but Obama was an outsider with merely talk when the crucial decisions were made. If he were in the Senate earlier he likely would have agreed with his runningmate.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:48 AM  

  • so I guess if you are a black female you have to blindly vote for obama without looking at the issues. Glad my mind is already made up for me and I am not allowed to think for myself since you assume based on an opinion my race. Liberal but not tolerant (great combo)

    I am a black female and was not impressed with obama tonight at all.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:59 AM  

  • I think the beginning of the debate about the economy was a draw. There wasn't anyone who was the clear winner here. They simply gave their differing views and the viewer was left to choose what they agreed with. I don't think any of them convinced anyone to switch sides.

    On the second half of the debate about the foreign powers, I think McCain looked stronger than Obama. They were asked a question about the Georgian conflict, and Obama went into some canned lines about the economy. I did understand why he did this and felt that he did not know the situation.

    In all I would say McCain won this slightly, but would also say that this debate probably did not convince many voters - if any at all - to switch their vote.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:21 AM  

  • I'm not sure race has anything to do with it. You can white and an Obama supporter or black and a McCain supporter. Or whatever.

    I agree with the above commenter that it was easier for Obama to be against the war -- he wasn't in the Senate at the time. (I was a supporter of the war at the time, but, like many liberal hawks, have turned against it.) But the point is, McCain has been one of the most vocal supporters of a war that has been a disaster -- and all he wants is more war.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:21 AM  

  • I agree, Dan, that McCain did quite well on Georgia. Although I would add that it is the policies of McCain and the right that contributed to the conflict, backing Russia into a corner and emboldening Georgia. And now what? McCain says our thought and prayers ought to be with Georgia? Big deal.

    Like you, though, I don't think the debate changed many minds. It'll be interesting to see how long the debate plays in the media. With Congress set to hammer out a deal on the bailout over the weekend, I suspect the economy will be front and center again very soon.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:24 AM  

  • I said that because usually when people do state there race in comments or blogs it is used to manipulate or divert there true intentions. When this race or gender is stated it is not the true representation of the commentator.

    For Example. I think you are a non-African American who is trying to let other voters think that Barack Obama let down his own supporters which is not true.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:26 AM  

  • Fair enough. I take your point.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:54 AM  

  • Why Obama did not mention that Georgia taunted Russia first, I don't know. Colin Powell said it in the famous Sec. of States interviews on CNN last week. Russia was just showing them that they are not going to take it from a country who has the USA on their side and are, in essence, showing off about it. I believe this is the reason Putin and Chavez are getting closer every day. To protect themselves, just in case.

    That said, if anyone had any doubt that Obama can lead, Obama put that lie to rest last night. He is an offer we can't refuse. History books will record that we entered a country where we should never have gone and stayed regardless. And voted twice for the person who took us there! There is no dignity to be achieved here. The damage has been done. To people reading those books, we are going to look like idiots. It is now time to get out. Quickly. Like I heard someone say the other day, if the surge worked, why are we still there? How much longer?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:26 AM  

  • After watching the candidate's debate last night, it became apparent that Obama would be better to play the President in a movie, but McCain is the man who can actually do the job. Obama is like a movie set. He looks good, but behind the facade, there's nothing there.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 9:49 AM  

  • It was apparent that Obama was more relaxed and definitive about his plans for the future of this country. He laid out his formula for a short-term solution to the economic crisis, and made clear his desire to resurrect our nation's reputation abroad and how he would go about it. His positions on the Iranian situation and the war in Afghanistan were both thoughtful and pragmatic.

    McCain was clearly uncomfortable, and badly bumbled the economics portion of the debate. He also kept repeating gross inaccuracies about Obama's positions, at least according to [].

    McCain's disrespect in not looking directly at Obama, coupled with his self-righteous, arrogant, and condescending attitude in responding, provided ample evidence that McCain is not the person I'd like to see in any kind of serious negotiations, foreign or domestic.

    By calmly supplying facts and figures, describing the current situation from a realistic perspective, and explaining his clearly-defined plan for leading us into the next decade tipped the scale toward Obama.

    It was a definite win for Obama from my perspective.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:01 AM  

  • Obama said he's going to bomb Pakistan and kill Osama. Yeah, that's what America needs. Vote Obama...bomb baby bomb!!!!!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:34 AM  

  • I believe last nights debate proved that McCain has the same ideas as Bush despite his efforts to separate himself from Bush. He believes in same method of negotiation and dealing with Iran. His attempt to tell veterans that he will help them and he loves them did not work for me. He did not say HOW he will take care of them. Is his healthcare plans and education plans going to help veterans? HOW exactly is he going to help them. Does McCain's love help veterans who suffer psychological and health issues when they come back? McCain like his running mate is full of sweet and loving words and no real action when it comes to internal issues, but they both sure are ready to attack other countries and go to war. McCain’s view of the world is the old, small and selfish, he believes in democracy within US borders and totalitarian and dictatorship outside our borders. McCain emphasized on his experience, but failed to show how his experience in military and foreign affairs has helped him this past 8 years in making the right choices for our country and our YOUNG WOMEN AND MEN in military and all Iraqi people who no one talks about. If McCain was truly Maverick in every way, he failed to show how he will be unconventional when it comes to negotiation with middle east, Russia and other countries and how he will win them over for the first time ever. This debate made it clear where each candidate stands. Also it proved that Obama is steady, intelligent and sincere, and McCain has a lot of experience and never learned from it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:29 PM  

  • So, you beleieve the Iraqi people would be better today if hussein was still in power there, correct?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:16 PM  

  • Who... me? Of course not. Don't be stupid.

    I actually supported the war -- at first, based on what I knew at the time. I was suspicious of what Bush was up to, and I only came to support it reluctantly, only in the last few days, only when it seemed that it was inevitable. And the case I made for it was the one many liberal hawks made, namely, that Saddam was a brutal dictator, a threat both to his people and to the region.

    Would the Iraqi people be better off with him still in power? No. But they'd be a lot better off if the war hadn't been so horribly mismanaged, if Bush and those around him hadn't gotten so much wrong.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:52 PM  

  • better than the current situation. 3000/month Irqis were not dying during Hossein. It was not a good government, not a government for people. But it was better than their current situation. What you see and hear about the situation in Iraq through what McCain says is not the truth. Believe me i have been there and i know how it feels to live day in and day out with the fear of a bomb hitting your home, your school, or your friends home. the war in Iraq was not to bring democracy to Iraq. I believe before US invasion, Saddam did not support Benladen and they did not have a home in Iraq and now they do. Yes, the beautiful picture of democracy, schools, happy people walking around is nice and beatiful, but that is not true in Iraq and Iraq is far from that picture and so far last 5 years has showed that we are not capable of bringing that picture to reality the way we have been acting. Do we know exactly what is the difference between Shia and Sonni, do we know what are Iraqi peoples values and needs and wants? Do we respect what they want or we just want to bring what we believe democracy is to someone elses country with different values.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:53 PM  

  • Many more than 3000 per month were dying under Hussein. Americans chose to ignore this while it was happening as many countries have in the past and continue to do so today. Freedom does require time and sacrifice. I do not believe American is trying to impose values on Iraq. American and their allies are trying to allow the Iraqi people to choose how they want to live. If ultimately they choose dictatorship, the people will then live with the choice. It truly frightens me that Barrack Obama stated that he will bomb Iraq and kill OBL. His choice is not the answer.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:21 PM  

  • apologies....meant bomb Pakistan

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:34 PM  

  • did we go to Iraq because the people of Iraq asked for our help? instead of "trying to allow iraqi people to choose" why don't we ask them and allow them to choose before we choose for them. Why did we empower Benlauden to help us get rid of Russia in Afganestan and did not help Afgan women when they were actually asking for help? Why did we support Saddam, same Saddam, when he used chemical on his own people and iranians, why did we help him attack iran....Did we ask those people when we got into their countries or decided for them how their lives are going to change. McCain has the same style as Bush and the old way of dictatorship abroad. We will not be safe as long as we act as bullies and the world sees us as bullies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:56 PM  

  • Actually i have to correct my numbers based on CNN numbers, 500/day Iraquis have died. That is 15000/month, total of 655,000. I do not beleive that this many people were dying during Saddam. Freedom does take sacrifice, but were is the hope? Does it take more than 5 years, would you do it yourself? unknow, unclear freedom for 500/day of your people? here is the link for CNN numbers
    Bush has slammed the numbers, McCain talks about freedom and happiness is just a few days away and paints a picture that is not true.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:09 PM  

  • It is pathetic that CNN had to have an "Audience Reaction Meter" to control the public's perceptions. Obviously, they control the meter and bring it up and down at their will. This is just another way for the media to control the perceptions of the people!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:13 AM  

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