Debate Thoughts, 12 Hours Later


The snap phone polls taken after the debate show Obama edging past McCain, which at first surprised me. If we view what happened in offense-defense terms, Obama was on defense most of the time, and McCain was driving the discussion. He introduced topics that Obama had to respond to; Obama didn't do any of that. He obviously knew more about the world than Obama. How could he not? And he dished out the knowledge in stories, facts, anecdotes, in a way that avoided the schoolboy ooze of Al Gore circa 2000.

If McCain lost, it was for two reasons: Issues and attitude. Attitude is probably what moved the polls, but I'll go to issues first, because the TV battlebots seemed not to understand the average opinions on them. In last year's YouTube debate, Stephen Sorta asked if the candidates would meet "separately and without precondition" with the leaders of Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. Obama said he would, and it was immediately named a gaffe. But he stuck to the point (maybe out of stubbornness as much as ideology), refining it more and more as the campaign went on, to conjure up images of Nixon going to China. By and large… it's worked. When voters are asked specifically about meeting with the president of Iran, they shudder. But as Obama defines the issue, they like it: They've had (as Nixon might say) a president who "cannot travel abroad or to any major city at home without fear of a hostile demonstration" and it'd be nice to try the alternative.

This is why I thought McCain did better in the first, unexpected part of the debate, on economics. Is he unable to think about economics any way except a function of spending? No. But in talking about it, in talking about work across the aisle, and about Obama's lack of a record (or short, horrible record) on spending and taxes, McCain seemed like the get-along maverick who hates Washington as much as you do. When he attacked Obama, it was more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger. That young guy just isn't going to clean up the city like I will. When McCain talked foreign policy, he was the bellicose war-around-every-corner nut who, post-Bush, doesn't seem like the guy to hand the keys to.

Second, style. Watching replays at home, as opposed to the bustle of a Reason office with Bob Barr adding color commentary, I remembered that we were supposed to watch for signs that one guy got under the other guy's skin. McCain oozed contempt. He was feeling for a trap door switch that would throw Obama under the floorboards and let Hillary up to the podium. In most exchanges (not the surge exchange) it made McCain seem more small than dominant. Again, his arrogance isn't the kind of arrogance that doomed Gore. But Obama's responses weren't the weak and whiny responses of George W. Bush. It's one thing to repeat that your opponent "doesn't understand" anything, and another when he comes back clearly understanding and disagreeing.

It's probably a mistake for McCain to harp (in ongoing spin) on how many times Obama gently agreed with part of his points. Hell, that's what Obama does. His skill in town halls (often underrated, and I think McCain will lose the expectations game when they have their debate in that style) is his ability to give a questioner credit for his question, then slowwwwly destroy the question and the premise. I wish I had a video example of him doing this on immigration. In Iowa, especially, he'd get a question from someone who wanted to close the borders, and Obama would say "Look, I agree" with some part of what he'd said before coming down on the side of citizenship.