Friday, September 26, 2008

The first debate

There is cool, and then there is cool to the point of ice cool. Barack Obama's coolness did not serve him very well tonight. He was fine, for the most part, on substance, but he did not parry effectively enough McCain's charges that he favored "defeat" in Iraq and that by potentially talking with Ahmadinejad he would be "legitimizing" the latter's views on Israel (and other matters). These McCain gambits should have been met with more force, passion, and heat than Obama displayed. I felt that Obama risked conveying that he did not care about these matters in a visceral way. There was no expression of, indeed no hint of, real outrage or even mild anger at the huge mess and disaster that the Bush administration has created in America's relations with the world. Obama said the right things but did not seem to feel them very deeply.

The upshot was, as Michael Beschloss remarked afterward, that Obama appeared to be on the defensive for a fair amount of the time. He was very good on certain topics like the U.S. and Pakistan, where he effectively criticized the U.S. record of largely uncritical support of (the now ousted) Musharraf. McCain came back with "I don't think Sen. Obama realizes that Pakistan was a failed state when Musharraf took over [by coup in '99] ." That's wrong: Pakistan was (and is) a very troubled state but not a failed state, and Obama should not have let that go by. He was also too willing to agree with McCain on the need for missile defense and on domestic nuclear power.

Obama had a strong moment at the end, when he talked about the decline in U.S. standing and reputation in the world, but here again he probably let McCain dissociate himself from the Bush administration without sufficient pushback. He even gave McCain credit on the torture issue -- gracious but probably unnecessary (and not wholly accurate). Judged from a transcript, this debate was probably a victory for Obama. Judged as television, however -- which means judged on the impressions conveyed and the tone, rather than as a purely substantive contest -- I would have to say McCain earned at least a draw, and perhaps should be given a slight edge for being on the offensive more of the time.

Bottom line: probably not many votes are going to be swayed by this debate one way or the other. But Obama better take a dose of de-icer before the next one.

P.s.: After reading D. Nexon's reaction (D. of Minerva), I am reminded that Obama also had a good moment on Iran and the impossibility of effective sanctions without the participation of China and Russia (in response to McCain's blathering about his League of Democracies).


bro said...

I agree that Obama lost. I think he lost by a lot. He seemed psychologically unable to pin McCain down. Even when he could have -- for example, when he explained his take-out-Bin Laden-in-Pakistan-unilaterally-if-necessary policy, he could have asked McCain point blank if he disagreed with that, and that would have forced McCain finally to acknowledge him, but instead he let him off the hook by nattering on. I don't think this was because he was strongly advised (as rumor has it) that he should avoid the aggressive black man role. I think it's just because he's too nice and deferential, and that did not serve him well. In the next debate, Obama should politely but pointedly ask McCain questions, and this will make McCain's studied refusal to look at or acknowledge Obama seem churlish rather than (as it did) just strong.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post. Obama did not convey any passion or feeling and came off lukewarm on national security issues. And his camp better come up with a reply to McCain's " I been there, so I know" strategy on security stuff. McCain, I thought did a lot with what he had. He understands the electorate a lot better than Obama does.

LFC said...

There were two silver linings, so to speak, I neglected to mention: 1)the first 30 mins. or so was mostly on the economy, where it seems to be the consensus that Obama did better; 2)some instant polls of undecided voters (not always reliable instruments) apparently broke in Obama's favor.

On the issue of "McCain's studied refusal to look at or acknowledge Obama" there is a quite interesting divergence in reactions. On one hand, some bloggers thought this was a sign that McCain was afraid of Obama; a "monkey scientist" pointed out on one website that lower-ranking primates avoid looking at higher-ranking ones, etc. On the other hand, David Broder, in a WP column "McCain as Alpha Male," said exactly the opposite: McCain's refusal to make eye contact was a sign of strength, Obama's looking at McCain was a sign of deference. I'm inclined to agree with Broder, and also agree with bro that asking direct questions of McCain next time would be a good idea. And N is right about needing to counter the McCain "been there, know that" line more effectively.

El Jefe Maximo said...

You're awfully hard on Obama. His performance was not sterling, but neither was McCain's. Both turned in credible performances, and got passing grades. Politically, though, that's in Obama's favor. Essentially, I thought Obama won, because he did not lose.

LFC said...

El jefe: Well, I hope your view re the outcome is widely shared; as I said, my sense (just a guess really) is that this debate did not change many minds on either side.