As anyone who has made up their mind already about who should be the next US president should
be able to admit, it is awfully difficult to analyze a debate with a large portion of objectivity. That's why I have a bit of hesitation about declaring a "winner" in last night's event. I think the best way to assess the performances is to consider what the expectations were for each candidate before they stepped up on stage. The McCain campaign's initial efforts to make the subject of the first debate "foreign policy" was telling. Clearly they believe that this is McCain's strength, and I don't think you'd find many impartial observers that would suggest that the GOP candidate hasn't put his focus on overseas issues throughout his career.
On the other side, there was a lot of talk about Obama's lack of experience in world politics, and therefore an accompanying expectation
that this would not be his strongest in this series of three presidential debates. Obviously his opponents expected an easy win for McCain
. That's what makes the responses after last night's contest so notable. I was hard-pressed to find anyone claiming that McCain had won a significant victory, despite his supposed strength on foreign policy issues. To be fair, the first 40 minutes or so incorporated discussion about the crisis on Wall Street, and how it effects national standing. There is no one
(except for perhaps his campaign) claiming that this is a particularly strong suit for John McCain. But still, the "more experienced" candidate should have had a distinct advantage, given the theme. If he did, he failed to fully capitalize on it.
I find it telling that several major media sources came out and called the debate in Obama's favor (including Time Magazine
and The New York Times
). Meanwhile the CNN viewer poll
"had Obama winning overall by a margin of 51-38. Even more problematic for the McCain/Palin ticket, a CBS poll
found that thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won. Thirty-seven percent saw it as a draw. While the conventional wisdom says that the initial reaction to debates can change over a few days, it's going to be hard for the Right Wing media machine to spin this to McCain's advantage. They will likely just cite "liberal media bias"
Unfortunately for the political dialog in this country, a lot of Americans make their judgments on superficial criteria. I suspect that this (for a change) will also hinder the perception of John McCain. His campaign tried to make the case that Obama looked defensive by agreeing with his aggressive opponent on a number of issues. While they suggested that this made Obama look "weak", the approach may end up making the Illinois senator look less "extreme" and more open to bipartisan diplomacy- which has been a big part of the strategy all along. On the other hand, I thought that the attack-dog version of McCain came off as more peevish than decisive (partially because he refused to look Obama in the eye
). There have already
been comparisons to the 1960 debate
between Nixon and Kennedy. I wouldn't be surprised if that narrative reference sticks to this one.
As far as the specific content of the arguments presented by each side, there was nothing new for the informed viewer. Obama tied McCain to Bush's disastrous presidential agenda, and directed attention to the Arizona senator's unstinting commitment to a very unpopular war. McCain called out Obama on his opposition to the surge and continuously repeated the talking point that his opponent "just doesn't understand". I did find McCain's references to his record as not being the "Miss Congeniality
" of the Senate puzzling. And his attack regarding Obama's supposed confusion
over "tactics" and "strategy" was not only condescending, but flat-out wrong (I found it surprising that someone with an undeniable history in the military would screw that one up).
Overall, I can't see how anyone could come to the conclusion that this debate will be viewed as an asset for McCain in this race. This was his opportunity for an "early" knock-out punch on his chosen ground, and he failed to deliver it. Contrary to the claims of the McCain/Palin ticket, Obama came across as reliable, unflappable, and "presidential". Now the question of McCain's stamina rises to the forefront. He's behind and has to mount some sort of comeback. He's employed a few stunts
that have largely fallen flat. Next up we have the confrontation between Palin and Biden, and the nation will be watching to see if McCain's running mate
will be able to reverse the growing questions of her capabilities. That should garner a huge audience.
NOTE: If you are interested in reading an analysis of the various "misrepresentations" delivered in the debate, this site
is a relatively unbiased one.
Labels: Barack Obama, Debate, John McCain, Politics, Shenanigans