Saturday, September 27, 2008

Round One Goes to Obama

In my mind, Obama clearly won the debate last evening and moved another step or two closer to becoming president of the United States. Obama, as always, was cool headed, lucid throughout, thoughtful, rational and, most importantly presidential. On the other hand, McCain was caustic, angry, smirky, patronizing as hell, and often rambling and incoherent. For the average viewer at home, I suspect Obama was much easier to understand and connect with. He stayed on point, actually addressed the questions asked and never descended into petty personal attacks or a dismissive tone, as McCain did on a few occasions. Conversely, McCain would go into his "grandpa's got a story" mode and begin to wander off onto topics unrelated to the question, making it hard for many to follow him and grasp the key points McCain wanted to make, I bet.

For some strange reason, and I haven't seen anyone writing about this yet, McCain made three or four bizarre-o references, one with regard to his sharpy pen, to being old that, instead of allaying any fears the electorate might have had about his ancient-ness, to me only seemed to underscore it further. A psychologist could analyze this better than I can, but it was notable and weird...

In addition, the body language/visual comparison between the two candidates was a blow out. Obama stands with poise and confidence, erect and respectful as he speaks and as he listens. A number of times when John McCain would start to distort the truth, make a patronizing personal attack, or just plain lie, the split screen would show Obama looking at Jim Lehrer, smiling, maybe shaking his head a bit, as if to say, "there he goes again." It nicely called into question whatever nonesense McCain was spouting at that moment before Obama jumped back in to rebut. On the other hand, McCain stood hunched over. He smirked and grimaced a lot and did that weird, scary smiley thing he has become infamous for, a kind of older version of the Dick Cheney. And, at one point, while Obama was taking it to McCain, the Arizona Senator was leaning over the podium, squinting and straining to see something in the audience, or somewhere off in the distance. It was really bizarre.

On this point, too, a number of people out their in pundit-land are talking about the strange unwillingness of John McCain to look at Obama or address him directly, as Jim Lehrer asked the candidates to do on several occasions. When McCain would make his most sleazy and personal attacks on Obama, he would literally turn away from the senator and his eyes would get all shifty.

Here is a clip of the body language from McCain:

Here are Chris Matthews and Eugene Robinson discussing it. At one point last night, Matthews went so far as to call McCain "troll-like" and "grouchy":

Here is what one psychologist wrote:
As a psychotherapist and someone who treats people with anger management problems, we typically try to educate people that anger is often an emotion that masks other emotions. I think it's significant that McCain didn't make much, if any, eye contact because it suggests one of two things to me; he doesn't want to make eye contact because he is prone to losing control of his emotions if he deals directly with the other person, or, his anger masks fear and the eye contact may increase or substantiate the fear.

I noticed him doing the same thing in the Republican primary debates. The perception observers are likely to have is that he is unwilling to acknowledge the opponent's legitimacy and/or is contemptuous of the opponent.

And another,
I think people really are missing the point about McCain's failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear--look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior--low ranking monkeys don't look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.

This was the foreign policy debate, which should have been the kindest terrain for McCain. That Obama not only held his own, but I think clearly won on both style and substance, means it is actually a BIG win for Obama. The next two debates will shift to friendly ground for Obama: economics and domestic issues.

I will say this, Obama failed to take at least 5 or 6 opportunities to really pound McCain when the opportunity presented itself: when McCain lied, when McCain's record might have allowed for a direct hit, or when Obama might have tied McSame back to Bush and conservative ideology. For instance, Obama should have had a needling quote right off the bat that "it's niceof you to join us here tonight, John," referencing McCain's failed attempt to weasel out of the debate. Or, he should have nailed him on screwing up the bailout discussions and being a divisive partisan force there, rather than a bipartisan uniter, as he claims. Or, during the discussion of Russia's recent bloody incursion into Georgia, Obama conceded too much to McCain and should have said something like this, "While both senator McCain and I agree that Russians actions in this case were unacceptable, I strongly disagree with the precipitous, sabre-rattling rhetoric my opponent employed, which does nothing to bring us closer to a solution to this grave problem, and in fact only complicates an already difficult situation. This kind of rash, intemperate reaction by Senator McCain calls into question his ability to make the kind of clear-headed assessments and judgements necessary by the Commander-in-Chief." See where I am coming from on this. Lots of opportunities were left ont he table and Obama can be a little too willing to concede points to McCain.

Here is an even tougher reaction on this point from a progressive blogger over at Open Left and it is worth your consideration. Be sure to look at the comments section, too, for several good responses.

That said, I do think Obama can be effective when he concedes a small point to McCain and then steers the discussion back to the larger, over-arching point of philosophy where the two are clearly at odds. If done well, it minimizes McCain's attempt to score a point and puts Obama back in the driver's seat.

On a certain level, I understand why Obama does not like to hammer people, particularly as a black candidate in a society still laced with strong racist sentiment. But, if he does end up losing this election, we might look back and point to these moments as significant lost opportunities. He did let McCain off the hook a few times and I suspect McCain's advisors behind the scenes breathed a sigh of real relief in those moments that their guy did not just get absolutely burried. I hope Obama will be a little more sharp and will unleash a few zingers in the upcoming debates.

Obama was strong early on during the economic discussion and I like the way he kept bringing it back to the fundamental failure of conservative policy. He might have extended this thread throughout the entire debate, including in foreign policy and come back to it on the domestic side at the end, but he let it go. This was another missed opportunity. The reality of our current predicament is that we are dealing with the chickens/vultures coming home to roost after a few decades of conservative, glassy-eyed free-market, militarist policies. Hammering this line not only helps Obama win the presidency, but it also helps Democrats win more congressional races, a key dynamic of this race if Obama is to be able to do much once he is in office.

The initial polls and snap reactions by voters indicates a strong sense that Obama won the debate, as well, although in pundit-land McCain has received more generous responses to what I thought was an abysmal performance by him. This reminds me of 2004 when Kerry mopped the floor with Bush in a couple of the debates and pundit-land called it a draw, or even gave Bush the edge. So, we live in a mediated world, not one necessarily based in reality. It will be interesting to see what transpires over the next few days and then into the lead-up to this week's VP debate.

A CBS instant poll revealed this data:
40% of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. 22% thought John McCain won. 38% saw it as a draw.

68% of these voters think Obama would make the right decision
about the economy. 41% think McCain would.

49% of these voters think Obama would make the right decisions about Iraq. 55% think McCain would.
Watch here:

Two focus groups, one by GOP pollster Frank Luntz and another by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, both declared Obama the winner. Here's video of Luntz... it is heartening for Obama fans:

What did you think of the debate? Let me know...

PS: Let me add, in response to my fellow progressive/lefties, like Sean Penn, who complain that Obama won't be aggressively left enough and, thus, saw last night as a disappointment . Well, yes, I agree that I'd like a much more progressive/left policy agenda and a little more fire from time to time from Obama. No real argument there. My own personal views are not fully consonant with Obama's on a range of issues. But, we play on the field we have and on that field, there are two candidates, McCain and Obama. Yeah, yeah, Cynthia McKinney is technically better on the issues, but she ain't winnin'. The stakes are too high to bother with the third party stuff this year. So, we have two flawed candidates, but one clearly light years ahead of the other. So, in this realm we compromise to staunch the bleeding of the last 7+ years. We need to close ranks to help the Democrat win power, which will itself, whatever Obama's weaknesses, be a powerful repudiation of the Bush years and Republicanism. But our work does not end there. We must see politics and citizenship in a much more expansive way. We need to continue to push Obama leftward and, more importantly, we do this by getting more and more active as citizens in building alternative organizations to give our views voice throughout society, in formal politics and outside of formal politics. This kind of institution building was key to the conservative ascendancy and if we really ever want a progressive America, we need to do the same on "our side." So, this presidential race is but one piece of a much more massive project. But, it is significant and we cannot afford to lend our voices to a public discourse that might eventually give us McCain/Palin in the White House. That is unacceptable in the EXTREME and any lefty who thinks or writes or says otherwise is a lunatic, given what we have all recently been through...


  1. My feeling leaving the debate setting of Zen's bar, without any post analysis, was that 1 side represented the same old way that is going to lead us backwards, while the other is the new way forward.

    Obama did elevate the debate, where Iraq meets Pakistan, meets China (did McCain even mention China?) meets gigantic deficit thanks to the Republicans (not just Bush), meets Wall Street Bailout, meets high prices for everything. He didn't do it enough, but he did connect dots. McCain is always and has always been: Iraq.

    Obama's stance with Russia needs to be more unique. He gave too much to McCain, seeing how McCain seems to hate Russia, has always wanted them out of the the G8 and almost started WWIII with his lobbyist support for Georgia and his macho tough talk that did nothing.

    I think Lehrer did a good thing, in this foreign policy debate, when he started with the bailout. Because really, if you want a general, you'd probably pick the warhawk, if you want a president, it seems now even more apparent, you pick the guy who doesn't just react with his gut, but who thinks things through.

  2. McCain was indeed transparently angry. I think it goes beyond the debate or even the campaign.

    John McCain suffered unimaginably in service to the rest of us. When his sacrifices are denigrated or ignored by those who never endured such treatment, his anger is understandable. I believe this instance is more revealing than the debate.