Last night, as a climax to the McCain soap opera farce about having to cancel the First Presidential Debate, so McCain could solve the financial crisis, the event took place. I watched the debate and also watched various post debate commentaries and focus group presentations. I will present here two of my senses, the first formed as I was watching and the second after absorbing commentaries, viewing repeats and focus group presentations, and reflecting further. I consider the second sense more valuable.
The format of the debate actually was fairly good and the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, was excellent as expected. Lehrer tried early to get the candidates to take advantage of the format's five minute sessions to directly engage each other, but the candidates never did fully warm up to the opportunity, especially McCain, as I will discuss later.
This was supposed to be a debate on foreign policy, on which McCain is supposedly seen as more experienced and knowledgeable. The McCain campaign has been slipping in the polls since the Palin related convention bounce, so McCain needed to do well at the debate to make a climb in the polls. He needed to verify he was a knowledgeable leader, and also to show Obama lacks knowledge and leadership. Obama needed to show his own knowledge and leadership strength, and also to show McCain has poor judgement and a defective leadership style.
Because of the economic crisis, the first 39 minutes of the 90 minute debate, were directed to how the candidates viewed the crisis, how they would solve it and how the solution would affect their plans if they become President. Not surprisingly, since the public is overwhelmingly outraged with the crisis and with the possibility of having to pay as taxpayers to bail it out, both candidates were reluctant to fully respond to the questions. McCain blamed greed of a few high ranking people on Wall Street [the Republicans always like to blame the collapse of their ill-conceived management of our institutions on "a few bad apples"]. Obama blamed the Bush-McCain program of de-regulation. Both admitted the government bailout was needed, McCain more grudgingly than Obama. Both avoided acknowledging the bailout would have any significant impact on their Presidency.
McCain cleverly turned the economic discussion to his pet topic of earmarks, which have absolutely nothing to do with the crisis. He immediately started attacking Obama for requesting earmarks and put Obama on the defensive about that, when Obama should have been on the offense about McCain the de-regulator being a big part of the problem, and McCain the soap opera economy rescuer being a sideshow distraction of those working on a solution. I was upset that Obama was not more on the attack, but later reflection encouraged me that he actually handled himself well, in the overall strategic context, as opposed to the tactical opportunities of the present.
Strategically, Obama must show that his youth and inexperience relative to McCain are not really liabilities, and that his better temperament, judgment and grasp of the future far outweigh any experience advantage of McCain. In addition, Obama carries the extra burden, as Eugene Robinson, an African American Washington Post writer and MSNBC commentator points out, of having to be the least angry African American male in America. Gene is right, that many whites live in fear of angry black people. Part of the wonderful appeal of Obama is that he may actually be able to carry that burden. He certainly did a good job with it last night. Though there were many times a white Democrat in his place could have angrily counter-punched McCain, Obama had to hold his punches until later, when he had earned enough audience respect and had endured enough cheap and irrelevant shots to be able to defend and attack without feuling prejudice.
Once the campaign turned to foreign affairs, I was actually surprised to see how much McCain knows and how few mistakes he made, like his mispronunciation of a tough name and mistaken designation of the new President of Pakistan. McCain also referred to Pakistan as a failed state before Musharraf staged a coup and became dictator and Bush ally, though in fact Pakistan was a democracy before the takeover. Obama made no such mistakes and most impressively displayed a knowledge of world affairs and history at least equal to McCain and in fact surpassing that of McCain in some areas. One particular area where Obama excelled in the opinion of the focus groups was his identification of the need to restore America's credibility and standing with other nations in the world.
McCain made one laudatory passing reference to Sarah Palin, which only served to remind people what a totally inadequate candidate she is, what a poor choice McCain made (particularly in the night's context of foreign policy needs), and how scary it would be if she should have to take over for a dead or disabled President McCain [McCain did appear physically strong and capable last night, however]. Obama made a reference to Joe Biden's vast experience being available in an Obama Presidency , and nothing else needed to be said; a Presidential succession by Biden would, if ever necessary, obviously be quite reassuring.
Two McCain tactics backfired on him. One I noticed immediately. The other I did not realize until commentators pointed it out. Most noticeably McCain continually dismissed what Obama was saying as demonstrating "Obama just does not understand". This condescension was quite misplaced. Nobody seriously doubts Obama's intelligence, and his grasp of all the issues was quite evident last night. For McCain to try to put Obama down so readily made McCain look like the close minded pontificator he is, exactly the opposite of the false image he tries to create of himself as an open minded proponent of bi-partisan co-operation. By contrast, Obama often readily agreed with parts what McCain said and then went on to point out where they disagreed and why Obama believed his approach was the correct one and McCain's was not. Republican spinners are trying to portray Obama's expressions of agreement as bows to McCain's better knowledge, and at first I did not like Obama leaving that opening. But after reflection, I see Obama was right to show that there is no reason to disagree just to be disagreeable, and that a good negotiator can accomplish a lot more by not creating disagreements where they do not exist.
The failed McCain debate tactics and the smooth effectiveness of the Obama strategy was a clear demonstration of the difference between the styles and temperaments of the two men. If you want to get into a needless brawl like sailors in a bar, then McCain is your man. If you want someone who can listen to all the bar sailors and keep them from brawling and get them to work together, Obama is the one. And by the way, if some sailor executes a terrorist sucker punch and needs to be arrested or taken out, Obama is the one to handle that too, as was clearly shown by his statement that we took our eye off the ball by invading Iraq and we need to go after bin Laden and if he is in Pakistan and they will not cooperate, we need to go get him anyway. McCain expressed his belief Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism and demonstrated timid reluctance to upset our allies in Pakistan, even if that meant bin Laden might escape again.
A discussion of when and how to talk to unfriendly nations worked to the benefit of Obama, particularly with the focus groups. McCain tried to speak against "legitimizing" unfriendly leaders by talking to them, but Obama was able to point out how even the Bush administration and McCain's own adviser, Henry Kissinger, have now come to agree with Obama about the wisdom of such talks.
Obama showed an important understanding that McCain does not seem to grasp, in the area of nuclear weapons. McCain, the self-proclaimed cost cutter wants to fund unproven missile defense systems and gear up for potentially more military "victories" in the future, but rarely speaks of the inherent danger of nuclear proliferation. Last night Obama pointed out that the greatest threat to the United States is that a suitcase type nuclear weapon, from any of way too many possible sources, would fall into the hands of a terrorist. He pointed to his bi-partisan work with Senator Lugar to try to stop the spread and reduce the number and control over nuclear weapons.
McCain is fond of including personal anecdotes as to how he acquired his wisdom. The facts of the anecdotes change from time to time and sometimes are obviously not true, but they do personalize him to audiences. Obama is more private and more respecting of the privacy of others. A case in point last night was McCain again using the bracelet story about the mother of a dead soldier who gave him a bracelet to remember her son and work for victory in Iraq so her son would not have died in vain [under this argument, once a soldier of each side is killed in a war, both sides should pursue the war as fully as possible, as long as possible, without regard to the number of lives lost or the cost of the damage done, and regardless of whether the war turns out to have been based on lies or mistakes or reasons which no longer exist]. Obama, somewhat uncomfortable about using the name of a deceased soldier, even at the request of his mother, countered with his bracelet, given with the hope of the mother that more American children would not die in needless wars. McCain did not make any reference to his POW status until the very end but it had no impact as it came at a time when he ridiculously tried to portray Obama as being a stubborn man like George Bush, which prompted a spontaneous smile from Obama , who appreciated the irony of such an inapt comparison being made by McCain, who had just finished showing America how much he is just a stubborn, angry old man in maverick clothing.
Near the end of the evening, Obama had come to the time when he could take his strongest shot at McCain, which he did by pointing out that McCain talks like the war in Iraq started with the surge in 2007, while in fact it started with the invasion in 2002, and repeating to him all the things McCain had said would happen after that invasion and how McCain had been wrong on every single one of them. A little earlier, Obama had some fun at McCain's expense by saying McCain was so unwilling to use diplomacy that he had even expressed reluctance to talk with the leader of Spain, one of our NATO allies. McCain had actually spoken in mistake when he made that comment about Spain, getting his world leaders confused and trying to gloss over his confusion. Now Obama was putting him back in that bind, out of which McCain could only escape by admitting to confusion.
The most significant observation that I failed to notice, but was picked up by some commentators was that, in spite of the engagement purpose of the format, McCain never made eye contact with Obama all night. Obama tried to talk to McCain directly, turning toward him and addressing him in a respectful personal manner, but McCain always responded in the third person, never talking directly to him. Those who know McCain said this was probably a mental device McCain invoked to envision Obama as a faceless enemy who deserved only contempt and annihilation. I suppose that may be an effective approach for some fighter pilots, but it is not one that is well received by the independent and undecided voters, who are looking for a change for this Bush type attitude. Treating the duly chosen candidate of the Democratic Party as some sort of an evil enemy to be trashed is not the way to convince Americans you are the agent of the change we need.
Commentators were somewhat split, predictably along party lines, as to who won. Focus groups gave the nod to Obama. Since McCain seems to be slightly behind and foreign policy was supposed to be his strong suit, he needed a consensus victory, which he did not get. All in all, Obama comes out better than McCain in my opinion. Next Thursday is the VP debate. In her recent interview with Katie Couric, Palin did a very poor job, and it now appears she is not really such a quick study after all and even her marginal intellectual credentials were vastly overrated. McCain twice last night used his stale joke about not being elected Miss Congeniality in the Senate, which fell flat with the focus groups who could see why and did not think it so funny, and which reminded them that Palin's Miss Congeniality prize as a beauty queen is about all that is left on the positive side of her resume.