This was a debate out of the past, one that centered on familiar issues–taxes, spending, health care, education, abortion, litmus tests for judges. It was about ideology, left versus right. The 800 pound gorilla in the room is the economic crisis, but only the first two questions dealt with it. This debate could have been held in 1988, or for that matter 1948. The sharp ideological distinctions made for a good debate, and so did the format of having the two candidates at the same table.
The difference in the two candidates was startling. McCain had some fire, while Obama seemed to be content to run out the clock, sitting on his ever-widening lead in the battleground states. When Obama attacked McCain for the umpteenth time over his support for President Bush’s economic policies, McCain responded, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I’m going to give a new direction to this economy in this country.” That was his best moment in all the debates. Another one followed quickly, on taxes:
Obama: So, look, nobody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.
McCain: Nobody likes taxes. Let’s not raise anybody’s taxes. OK?
Obama: Well, I don’t mind paying a little more.
Obama’s lame retort ranks very high on the wus scale. It is an elitist remark. I was surprised McCain didn’t exploit it.
McCain dominated the economic debate in part because, as you might expect from a former military officer, he chose the terrain where the battle would take place: Joe the plumber. He made Obama contest that ground, and Obama wasn’t able to do so effectively.
CNN’s post-debate poll named Obama as the winner in the debate, 58-32. That tally in no way reflects the nature of the debate. Like previous post-debate polls, it was an indicator of presidential preference. I thought McCain was ahead until the question about negative campaign tactics. Then he came very close to needing anger management counseling. His anger was all too evident when he started talking about John Lewis comparing him to George Wallace. This wasn’t feigned high dudgeon. He was really mad. And he stayed mad. That’s when he lost the momentum. He tried to play the William Ayers card, but it didn’t work, and it was never going to work, because the only people who remember Ayers and the Weather Underground are 40 years older than the current generation. The discussion was going nowhere, but McCain couldn’t let go. McCain also brought up ACORN, which took $800,000 from the Obama campaign for voter registration and famously turned in registration forms that included the entire Dallas Cowboys’ starting lineup. Obama said that he had represented ACORN some years earlier in tandem with the Justice Department, but he never responded to the matter of blatant voter fraud.
Obama’s great strength in these debates is that he is more coherent than McCain is, and thus he sounds more presidential. Here is an exchange that took place as the debate was swinging back toward Obama. McCain challenged Obama to name an occasion when he had stood up to the leaders of his party. This falls in the category of “never ask a question unless you already know the answer”:
Obama: … First of all, in terms of standing up to the leaders of my party, the first major bill that I voted on in the Senate was in support of tort reform, which wasn’t very popular with trial lawyers, a major constituency in the Democratic Party. I support…
McCain: An overwhelming vote.
Obama: I support charter schools and pay for performance for teachers. Doesn’t make me popular with the teachers union. I support clean coal technology. Doesn’t make me popular with environmentalists. So I’ve got a history of reaching across the aisle.
I thought McCain did a good job on calling attention to Obama’s use of language. During a question about energy policy, Obama said, “And I think that we should look at offshore drilling and implement it in a way that allows us to get some additional oil. But understand, we only have three to four percent of the world’s oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil, which means that we can’t drill our way out of the problem.” When McCain responded, he said highlighted Obama’s use of “look at”: “He said, ‘We will look at offshore drilling. Did you get that? Look at. We can offshore drill now. We’ve got to do it now. We will reduce the cost of a barrel of oil because we show the world that we have a supply of our own. It’s doable. The technology is there and we have to drill now.” McCain won the exchange by calling attention to Obama’s weasel words.
What McCain accomplished in this debate was to make an articulate case for conservative economic principles: low taxes, low spending, free trade, line-item veto. He may have succeeded in winning over conservatives who have never trusted him. Maybe he won some former R’s who have turned independents. But he didn’t change the nature of the race–and at this point, it is hard to see how he could have done so. Even though he outperformed Obama over the course of the debate, he lost, because he is already losing.
Obama did not distinguish himself–way too much Harvard law school and not nearly enough Martin Luther King. He didn’t even bother to harp on his themes of “hope” and “change.” He played not to make a mistake, and that was his mistake. If you didn’t know the situation in the race, you could easily have concluded that he lost the debate, or at least, he was losing until the final questions on health care, education, and abortion. Then he summoned his abilities and was able to pull his arguments together and display some presidential bearing. But it still felt more like a debate that might have taken place during LBJ’s presidency rather than one that occurred in the middle of the worst worldwide economic slump since the thirties.