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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Impressions of the First Presidential Debate

Debates are always and invariably not about substance per se, they are often not even about performance, although sometimes they can become about both. I remember vividly four years ago in the first debate, the President George W. Bush looked disinterested, looking at his watch, listless, and uninformed. While he would end up winning the election, his performance at the time put John Kerry back in the game.

I did not get the sense anything quite as dramatic happened last night, but I do think from my biased and partisan perception that on the substance of the debate it was probably as a close to a draw as Obama could have hoped for. However, on the intangibles, McCain may have hurt himself depending on how the viewing public perceived it.

The first point, I think both McCain and Obama did a good job making the points that they wanted to make on both the economy and foreign policy. There was criticism of both that they were not able to articulate the magnitude of the crisis facing the country the past two weeks as the result of the financial crisis that hit Wall Street. Some of that is to be expected because the situation is so fluid and so difficult to assess.

Jim Lehrer, the moderator, for his part tried to pin the candidates down on how the crisis and the potential bailout would change the priorities of the candidates. Neither answered his questions directly. In part of course because they do not know the answer.

The second point though I think is the real pitfall that may harm McCain's standing--or at least has the potential to do so. My impression is that he was rude and condescending in his efforts to demonstrate to the public that he was an expert and Obama was inexperienced and green. Time and time again, he lectured like a professor explaining that Obama did not understand. Time and time again, again to this partisan, it appeared less like Obama did not understand and more like Obama did not agree.

The New York Times analysis bears this out:
More than anything, Mr. McCain seemed intent on presenting Mr. Obama as green and inexperienced, a risky choice during a difficult time. Again and again, sounding almost like a professor talking down to a new student, he talked about having to explain foreign policy to Mr. Obama and repeatedly invoked his 30 years of history on national security (even though Mr. McCain, in the kind of misstep that no doubt would have been used by Republicans against Mr. Obama, mangled the name of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he stumbled over the name of Pakistan’s newly inaugurated president, calling him “Qadari.” His name is actually Asif Ali Zardari.).

“I don’t think I need any on-the-job training,” Mr. McCain said in the closing moments of the debate. “I’m ready to go at it right now.”

But Mr. Obama seemed calm and in control and seemed to hold his own on foreign policy, the subject on which Mr. McCain was assumed to hold a natural advantage. Mr. Obama talked in detail about foreign countries and their leaders, as if trying to assure the audience that he could hold his own on the world stage. He raised his own questions about Mr. McCain’s judgment in supporting the Iraq war.

“You like to pretend like the war started in 2007 — you talk about the surge. The war started in 2003,” Mr. Obama said. “At the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong.”
On the latter point, I think was Obama at his best when he was able to articulate his position on Iraq. This is a key for McCain--the fact that he backed the surge and the surge has successfully reduced violence in Iraq. However, Obama's counter was strong--he focused time and time again on Iraq as a distraction and Iraq as a place that we should not have gone and that has weakened our standing in the international community.

People disagree on these points, and that's fine. However, Obama did not equivocate on his position, he did not back down from it, and from that standpoint, he did exceedingly well.

Obama from the beginning to the end, I think did a good job of deflecting some of the distortions in his record. One of my favorite points was when he said that the only reason his record looks so liberal is that he was voting against Bush's policies.

The New York Times analysis suggests that this was no clear winner here--I agree.
"There were no obvious game-changing moments — big mistakes, or the kind of sound bites that dominate the news for days — in the course of the 90-minute debate, held at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Still, the debate served as a reminder of just how different these two men would be as president as they appeared for their first extended session together before a huge audience, including many Americans who are just beginning to focus on this long-lasting race."
However, from that standpoint, again from my biased perception, Obama comes away better off than McCain. This was supposed to be McCain's territory. McCain came away looking knowledgeable about foreign policy. Obama came away looking like he could hold his own. He came away looking less than risky and more confident and assertive. That is exactly what Obama needed to do on this venue which appeared at the beginning to be stacked against him. Obama did not need to win on points here, he needed to not look outclassed. And he succeeded from my perceptive.

The big question is whether or not McCain's tone and seeming arrogance and condescension will harm him. It will also be interesting to see the Vice Presidential debate next week. For those who watched the Charlie Gibson interview with Sarah Palin, I was singularly unimpressed with her command of the issues. Joe Biden is one of the most knowledgeable people on world issues and Washington Policy. Will Sarah Palin look completely outclassed as Dan Quayle looked against Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 or will she be able to hold her own? That may be crucial to determining whether or not McCain can come back in this race.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting