When you have to compete with an economic meltdown, you have to hit whatever ball you get out of the field. Unfortunately, Obama and McCain couldn’t manage that with their first debate. I’ve seen it twice now, and to be honest, it didn’t have that great impact that I think a lot of people were expecting. Because it didn’t, I think that we can now safely say that both candidates are building up to the last debate. But even so, this debate failed to deliver a decisive blow for either candidate, a defining moment for the race to this point, or leave any resonating impressions.
Really, the defining moment of the race to now happened in the days leaning up – a panic and semi-meltdown for the McCain campaign, first after bad poll numbers and second with the campaign suspension. Then his bluff was called (that he wouldn’t attended the debate), and he ended up shuffling down there. And old saying is not to put yourself in a no-win situation – and certainly that saying carries over to politics. McCain said he would save the US economy and save the treasury Bill – he could never do it. Then he said that he wouldn’t go to the debate without the Bill passing – it never stood a chance, once it got used as a football.
If McCain hadn’t gone to the debate, the electorate would have hated him, Mississippi would have turned into a swing state, and his polls would crater. If he went, he would hollow, pathetic, and incapable of effecting political change. Plus, people would question his word and his resolve. Which is the worse? I guess he thought that going and looking like a fool was the better of the two, and slowly made his way down.
That was the defining moment of the race to now – how overrated McCain thinks himself that he thought he could save a Bill that didn’t deserve nor warrant saving; how ineffective his campaign is; how useless Palin is as the VP. If anyone is going to take anything out of the past week, it won’t be the debate: It’s the above.
But onto the debate. Depending which channel/newspaper/pundit/’authority’ you will get a different answer as to who won. The majority of reactions after the debate were that it was too close to call, a draw, or a tie. I’d say that’s fair. Unless you are a partisan supporter (like me), you would struggle to find more areas in policy that would advantage one candidate above the other. McCain targeted Obama on his opposition to the surge; Obama targeted McCain for his support of the invasion at the beginning and his claims of W.M.D.s. People who are getting tired of an election fought over one issue (the primaries, and then the beginning of the general) will be glad that the economy is tanking – it would have been 90 minutes of this. And that’s why McCain was hyped to win – foreign policy (the main topic of the debate originally) is his strongest suit.
Because it’s his strongest front (and regarded so by the voters), McCain needed to do well. He did well enough – no gaffes (surprise!), no stuff-ups, and nothing major to take from it. But Obama only needed to perform on-par with McCain, and he would come out trumps. If Obama could come out on the same level as McCain on foreign policy, then with the voters already agreeing with him on economy, health care, and just general domestic policies, he would have taken a big step forward. Obama manages to do that – conveying his analysis of the world at the moment, and discussing his policy approach. McCain needed something real good to exceed expectations, and he couldn’t muster it.
My critique of this part of the debate is simple: Obama attacked McCain quite well, but he had room to go harder. This was supposed to be (as the moderator tried to get between them) a discussion between the two men. Obama spoke to McCain, McCain didn’t answer back (which is to cover in the next paragraph). Obama should have ramped up his attacks to get a reaction from McCain who was playing aloof and disinterested in what Obama had to say.
As I said, McCain hardly acknowledge Obama. The moderator would tell the candidates to direct their comments to their opponents. Obama would, McCain wouldn’t. He looked, acted, and was surly, stand-offish, and wouldn’t even show Obama respect. I’m sure that there are 2 demographics that will find him contemptuous and disturbing – the young and the African-Americans. Obviously he wasn’t banking much on the African-American vote. As for the young, they are an important group. And undecided who base their vote on personality going into the debate, a majority of them would have come out with a negative opinion of McCain I suspect. It was to be expected – Obama is much more personable than ratty, old McCain. But it was as if he went out of his way to be a old cantankerous coot.
We know why he ignored Obama – to keep his temper in check. McCain is known as a hot-headed fool who will rail against someone who just says something he doesn’t agree with. But he definitely needed to keep that from showing – at all costs. For as much as a bum as he might have come off as with his tactic, he doesn’t fare anywhere near as bad as he would have had he unloaded on Obama. He was wise to not get too enraged, but it’s something Obama should have targeted for his own benefit.
However, what I think about the debate counts for little. Polls of viewers resoundingly report that Obama has won this one. Was more intelligent: Obama 55%, McCain 30%; expressed his views more clearly: Obama 53%, McCain 36%; spent more time attacking his opponent: McCain 60%, Obama 23%; was more sincere and authentic: Obama 46%, McCain 38%; seemed to be the stronger leader: Obama 49%, McCain 43%; was more likable: Obama 61%, McCain 26%; was more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you: Obama 62%, McCain 32%; who do you think will be able to handle the job of President: Obama 69%, McCain 68%. McCain, as the experienced candidate, should have owned this last category, and in most polls prior to the debate he had been. Also, you can’t lose “who is more in touch” question by 30% and expect to win the election.
The most important numbers, for my mind, are the following two numbers: Prior to the debate, 37% said that Obama had made it clear what he would do as President. After the debate, that number climbed to a high 65%. Also before the debate, 44% said that Obama is prepared to be President. After the debate, that number jumped to 60%. Very, very important numbers when the election is about clarity of policy and presidential image.
For more content analysis, you can find a dozen other websites that will do a better job than me. I’m more interested in how this will play out with voters. It seems to have done little for McCain, except hurt his campaign some more, and boosted Obama among swing voters on his weakness. A win for Obama on that front, but the debate, in my opinion, won’t change much in the long term, as those swing voters begin to waver again. The third debate, I say, is the one to look out for. It should have fireworks!