The Pre-Debate Thread: Maps, They Don't Love You Like I Love You

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The first important thing to remember about John McCain and Barack Obama is that tonight will be the first time either has debated a truly credible opponent from another party. Barack Obama won his 2004 Senate race by slapping around Alan Keyes, who insisted on answering every policy question by screaming "Jesus! Jesus!" into the microphone. McCain has only sweated in one election, the 1992 Senate race that followed the Keating Five scandal, and in the end he trounced Democrat Claire Sargent by 25 points.

The second thing to remember is that moderator Jim Lehrer is unlikely to ask the sort of scandalous questions that have, in the past, tripped up Obama and turned him into a one-man chorus of "Uhms," "You Knows," and "Looks." Here, for example, is how Jim Lehrer opened up the 2004 Bush-Kerry debates, which came after a month of the Swift Boat and CBS News scandals.

Senator Kerry… do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States?

Mr. President… do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

Senator Kerry: "Colossal misjudgments." What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

Mr. President… what about Senator Kerry's point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

Debates were not always like this. The election this most resembles, between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis (GOP going for third term, Democrat with patriotism and "regular guy" issues), gave us some of the stupidest debates of all time. Jim Lehrer opened the first debate thusly:

The polls say the number one domestic issue to a majority of voters is drugs. What is there about these times that drives or draws so many Americans to use drugs?

And the next ten minutes were about why Americans got high all the time. Peter Jennings followed Lehrer at the plate, leading to this exchange.

JENNINGS: Governor, one theme that keeps coming up about the way you govern—you've both mentioned leadership tonight, so I'd like to stay with that for a second. The theme that keeps coming up about the way you govern is passionless, technocratic –

DUKAKIS: Passionless?

JENNINGS: Passionless, technocratic, the smartest clerk in the world.

The backlash to the 1988 debates, borne out in that year's historically low turnout (beaten only by the 1996 Clinton-Dole-Perot humdinger), shamed the networks into staying away from jackknifed questions like that. If Lehrer ever asks Obama, say, about Jeremiah Wright, it would be a break with 16 years of tradition. This probably benefits Obama, but he's in just as much danger of going windy and pointless when he gets a policy question. McCain can handle any question adequately, even if his energy level is notably down from when he boiled over at George W. Bush in 2000.

The third thing to remember is what a weaker position McCain is in right now compared to George W. Bush four years ago. Here's an electoral map (courtesy of these guys) from the day of the first Bush-Kerry debate.

Kerry was on the verge of being Dukakis: Losing Maine, fighting for Maryland, deep down in Wisconsin. Now, here's today's map.

If the election were held today, given the Democratic surge in voter registrations and the panic-driven edge for Obama on economic issues, the man from Honolulu, Illinois would win. But it's easy to imagine McCain drubbing him and turning the election around.

Consider this a weekly political thread, and amuse yourself with Time magazine's collections of ten debate moments you've probably already seen, if not for a while.

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  1. But it’s easy to imagine McCain drubbing him and turning the election around.

    Is it really? I find that very hard to imagine.

    If his debate style is anything like his campaign stump style, he will be putting people to sleep rather quickly. Maybe he can debate in front of a green screen?

  2. tripped up Obama and turned him into a one-man chorus of “Uhms,” “You Knows,” and “Looks.”

    Don’t forget “Aaaaaand….”

  3. “tripped up Obama and turned him into a one-man chorus of “Uhms,” “You Knows,” and “Looks.””

    At least those sound more natural than eighteen thousand repetitions of “my friends”.

  4. But it’s easy to imagine McCain drubbing him and turning the election around.

    I disagree, it’s very hard to imagine McCain being able to be declared the decisive winner.

    First, the optics are possibly as bad as they’ve been since the first Kennedy-Nixon one. Just looking at them sitting around the table yesterday, McCain had that weird grin of his, while Obama looked thoughtful and contemplative. Both men are going walk out on stage, and McCain’s bad teeth, awkward body posture (despite everyone knowing why that is), and shorter stature are going to give him an immediate disadvantage.

    Second, both have played the expectations game to a draw. Obama has the reputation of underperforming in the debates, and nobody really remembers how McCain did, it seems like it was back with Lincoln and Douglas. But this latest little stunt is going to make it look a little like he’s scared of the debate, which rather than lowering expectations, makes people more attuned to your inevitable errors.

    Third, if this debate winds up being about the economy, especially at the beginning, it’s going to be very hard for McCain to seperate himself from Bush. Plus, that ‘don’t know much about economics’ while refreshingly honest, is going to bite him – esp since made a spectacle of donning his cape with the big “E” on the back, and swooped down to the rescue.

    Fourth, and this is the mistake he’s most likely to avoid, he’s got a tendency to try too hard to shoehorn his sea stories into his talking points, which produced awkward results, and most have heard these before anyway.

  5. Nice Yeah Yeah Yeah’s reference!

  6. First, the optics are possibly as bad as they’ve been since the first Kennedy-Nixon one. Just looking at them sitting around the table yesterday, McCain had that weird grin of his, while Obama looked thoughtful and contemplative. Both men are going walk out on stage, and McCain’s bad teeth, awkward body posture (despite everyone knowing why that is), and shorter stature are going to give him an immediate disadvantage.

    Not to mention, McCain in HD. That’s the real Kennedy Nixon comparison.

    Another disadvantage for McCain. Everyone expects him to win. As long as Obama doesn’t crap the bed, everyone will say, “Well, he did better than expected.”

  7. If anyone wants real debates, here’s something that would work. It would be very easy for Reason to put something like that on, but for some reason they don’t want to.

    Let me also suggest that Reason might consider that trying to change McCain is a far better option than enduring four years of BHO. You really, really, really have no idea how bad that would be.

  8. This election is more like 1960 than 1988.

  9. What should the over/under for “My friends” be? If this is a half-hour debate, I would put it at 150.

  10. “What should the over/under for “My friends” be?”

    Whatever it is, it will be more than enough to get me drunk.

  11. Is LoneWacko ever going to figure out that those windmills he’s been tilting at aren’t going to surrender to him?

  12. Is LoneWacko ever going to figure out that those windmills he’s been tilting at aren’t going to surrender to him?

    Is one of his “tough questions” for Obama still “why did you lie about Lou Dobbs’ position on deportation?” Yeah, that one’s really tough.

  13. Damn, David, you are a monster. How you can instantly recall one of LW’s insistent questions like that is amazing.

  14. Debates are stupid. The questions are stupid, and the answers are stupid. The only point is to determine whether one of the candidates will have some kind of mental breakdown or something. If not, waste of time.

  15. Max, we’re talking about John McCain as one of the participants here. A mental breakdown juts may happen.

  16. I had missed the whole context of Clinton’s “change you can xerox” comment (#10 of that Time “super-wacky moments in debate history” bit). What a breathtakingly poor political calculation to use that snark immediately after Obama had just been roundly cheered for his comments about “lifting the country up” instead of “tearing each other down.”

  17. Forty-five percent of the viewers will steadfastly claim Obama won – forty-five percent for McCain as well (each having decided whom to vote for beforehand) –ALL on party lines of course …

    – and the other 10% will remain confused.

  18. Was Perot in the 96 debate? I thought he had been excluded.

  19. He was excluded in ’96.

  20. The first important thing to remember about John McCain and Barack Obama is that tonight will be the first time either has debated a truly credible opponent from another party.

    Well, at least they are credible in relation to each other.

  21. Mike Dukakis really blew it when he answered “People are getting high because it makes it easier to understand the lyrics of rock songs.”

    That was just foolish. His numbers never recovered.

    Oh, Obama and McCain both suck so far.

  22. Joe, I’m watching both on my newly purchased (as of two days ago) HDTV.

    It’s scary to see them in Hi-Def. Obama needs a haircut, and McCain, well, he needs to have fewer scars.

  23. Awful. Just awful.

    I’d give them both a C, maybe C-.

    There will be no decisive winner. It’s like a Lions/Rams game.

  24. joe,

    But it won’t be like Dolphins/Patriots, eh, biatch?!?

    (I felt obliged to type that as a St. Louisan; but I recognize that the Rams are historically bad this year. And the Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs. And the Blues will likely suck. At least we have Albert Pujols, currently The Best Baseball Player In The Universe hands down.)

  25. I’m not seeing any Tom Brady on that stage tonight, Sparky. I’m not even seeing a Chad Pennington.

    It’s like a Kellen Clemons and a Trent Green.

  26. I just had to say that “Maps” is my favorite Rock Band song. It doesn’t give the bass-man (me) much to do, but it’s fun to play and hear.

  27. “It’s like a Kellen Clemons and a Trent Green.”

    shoots! scores!

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