Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflections on the third Obama-McCain debate

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I actually don't have a great deal to add today to what I wrote last night about the debate in my long and occasionally rambling live-blogging post.

Obama won. Pretty easily. That's about it. And that's pretty much the consensus today.

But, a few points:

1) One of the best summaries comes, as usual, from TNR's Noam Scheiber: "[T]he debate in a nutshell: McCain fulminating angrily, if sometimes effectively; Obama yielding more than he should at times, but still deadly on bottom-line differences. The election obviously isn't over. But McCain came up empty on his last, best chance."

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2) The most famous man in America today is Joe the Plumber. But who is this celebrated American Everyman? Well, hardly a non-partisan moderate. In fact, it looks like he's a registered Republican.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo: "It turns out Joe the 'Plumber' is like the perfect McCain supporter. He says Social Security is a joke and he 'hates' it."

In an interview with Katie Couric right after the debate, he said that "McCain did a fine job this evening, I think he brought up some good points. I do like his health care and I do like his, where he stands on taxes."

Robert Barnes at WaPo's The Trail: "Joe the Plumber is not exactly a plumber and he's 'not even close' to making the kind of money that would result in higher taxes from Democrat Barack Obama's proposals." (He's not even a licenced plumber.)

Dean Baker at The American Prospect explains that, under Obama's plan, Joe's taxes would increase only by a small amount, assuming that the plumbing business he is planning to buy "would be his entire taxable income."

Jonathan Chait at TNR's The Plank: "It's pretty ridiculous that somebody who earns more than 99% of Americans should become a stand-in for the average working man." He's not there yet, but, if he may be if he buys that plumbing business.

"In the meantime," Steve Benen at Political Animal notes, "depending on some of the details, Wurzelbacher would probably get a tax break under Obama's plan, and if he's like most of the middle class, his break would be bigger under Obama than under McCain.

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3) I wrote recently about what I call "the revolt against the punditocracy," whereby the people, according to the polls, decisively disagreed with the pundits' initial reaction of the first presidential debate and the vice-presidential debate. Many pundits called that first debate for McCain, or at least called it a draw. In contrast, the people, by a substantial margin, gave it to Obama. Many pundits said that Palin was, if not the outright winner of her debate, at least the winner of the expectations game. In contrast, the people, by a similarly substantial margin, gave it to Biden.

The pundits seem to have gotten the message. After both the second and third debates (and it was quite evident last night) many were far more cautious in terms of their initial appraisals than they had been before. There were the notable exceptions, hyper-partisans like Bill Bennett (who's hardly much of a pundit) on CNN, but, overall, I detected a certain uneasiness, as if they wanted to wait for the poll results before weighing in, at which point they generally agreed with the people.

To put it another way, the pundits often -- it may not be a general rule, but it's close -- get it wrong. And they do so, in my view, because they focus not on substance but on style. What matters to them is the expectations game, the drama, the theater. Instead of focusing on content, they look for game-changing moments, gotchas and gaffes, snappy one-liners that easily digested and easily regurgitated.

This is not to suggest that the people (and, yes, I'm speaking of them as if they were a monolith) do not care about such things. Clearly they do. Negative ads work, for example, or at least can work, and the look of a candidate can mean as much as what he or she says. Voters in 1960 who listened on radio thought that Nixon won the now-famous debate, while voters who watched it on TV thought that Kennedy won. Why? Because Kennedy was cool and collected while Nixon was unshaven and sweaty. Now, in 2008, not much has changed. Voters are reacting negatively not just to what McCain says but to how he looks, how he sounds, how he comes across. And they are reacting positively to Obama not just because of his policy proposals but because he has come across as presidential. But it's like skating on thin ice. If Obama were to lose his control, even for a brief moment, he would immediately be characterized as yet another angry black man, in other words, as a vicious, racist stereotype.

Still, this time, with information coming from so many different channels, and with a good deal of insecurity and uncertainty out there, the people are looking beyond the surface and, according to the polls, rewarding Obama on the actual merits, that is, on substance. The punditocracy has clued in, sort of, and is now taking its cues as much from the people as from its own sense of entitlement.

For more on this, in a related way, see Joe Klein, who has an excellent post up at Time's Swampland: "Pundits tend to be a lagging indicator. This is particularly true at the end of a political pendulum swing. We've been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working -- and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama." Read the whole thing. In brief: Many journalists are "trapped in the assumptions of the past," and hence unable to see things clearly in the here and now. And so many of them have bought into the old-style attacks (anti-liberal, anti-government) of McCain (and Palin). But it's a different time now, a different world. And "this is a very good year to be Senator Government," namely, Barack Obama.

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Well, I guess I did have quite a bit to add.

And here's our Amusing Photo of the Day, from Andrew Sullivan:

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