Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Debate as Afterthought
So I made a prudent decision last night to watch the conclusion of the Phillies' 8-4 win over Washington rather than the presidential debate in real time. After processing the Phils' win and Mets' defeat, I did catch some of the rebroadcast on C-SPAN.

The consensus of the punditocracy was that the debate ended as a "draw." Taegan Goddard's reaction was pretty representative:

The first debate of the general election campaign probably didn't change anyone's mind. Both McCain and Obama looked presidential. While each man landed some blows, neither came close to being knocked down. If forced to choose a winner, I'd give the very slight edge to Obama since the debate was primarily on foreign policy which is McCain's strongest issue.

Focus groups seem to have given Obama the edge, and I think another thread of the commentary--that Obama, simply by virtue of standing alongside an opponent with a much longer track record in the public eye and not screwing up egregiously, might have taken a long step toward victory--probably holds some validity. This race is sometimes compared to 1980, when the country was sick of Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, but unsure about Reagan to the point where Carter held a lead through Labor Day; once Reagan held his own in the debates, the pubic was sufficiently reassured to give him an overwhelming victory.

Beyond who "won" and "lost," what I did notice==from my admittedly biased perspective--was a difference in how they approached the questions, which seems like a decent proxy for "how they think."

Obama takes an analytical, systemic approach. In the economic part of the debate, he essentially made the case that if voters concerned about the budget should consider how his policies around taxes and expenditures are going to move the numbers, and how they will affect voters directly. When the conversation turned toward Iraq, he tried to focus on how we got there and whether we should ever have started the war, and asked viewers to consider who had shown the right judgment on the original question, and who would have the right judgment next time.

McCain goes much more for the gut. He tried to make his big arguments by implications and through little examples: that Obama's history of requesting earmarks as a Senator shows that he has no credibility as a responsible budgeter, while McCain's endless inveighing against earmarks shows his own fiscal prudence. On Iraq, he went for the emotional hit of describing his experience watching a couple hundred military personnel re-enlist, asking the country to "let us win." He's a little blurry on what "letting them win" specifically would entail, though more compelling when he sets out the consequences of failure. It's obvious that he's more concerned with avoiding "defeat" than specifically defining "victory"; by implication, "victory" to McCain is the avoidance of "defeat."

I want a rational decision-maker as president above all else. Obama I think came across as more rational. Maybe that's only to me, because I agree with him on more of the specifics. But that was my impression of both candidates from a process standpoint.

My only other reaction of note was that even after all the ugly and silly stuff in this campaign, it felt good to see in McCain a national Republican leader who didn't inspire in me the total disbelief and disgust that Bush did, and still does. Wrong as I think he is on issue after issue, McCain doesn't make me think, "How the hell did this fucking simpleton even make it up there, and what does it say about the country that he did?"

Though I'm thinking Sarah Palin--whose stunning incoherence in her interview with Katie Couric should terrify anyone with a grasp of McCain's actuarial prospects--will fill that void during the vice-presidential debate next week.

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