Before: Oh God. An hour and a half of this. I’d rather claw my own eyes out with spork. I know who I’m voting for. If John McCain saved six black babies from drowning tomorrow, I wouldn’t vote for him. I’m already pissed. PBS’s Ray Suarez just said that McCain had “suspended” his campaign. The only campaign he suspended was the campaign of the mind. His ads were up in various states, his dogs were attacking on TV, and he spent the day doing exactly what Obama spent the day doing. Bad start.
Ooh. Jim Lehrer says he wants direct exchanges and threatens moderator follow-ups. Oooh Oooh. And we have only him to blame for the questions. The audience stood when they walked in the room. Obviously they’re relieved that one of them is capable of walking.
After: The initial verdict is in. Obama held his own on what was supposed to be McCain’s home turf—national security. Overall, I was surprised by the substance of the thing. The questions, were actually substantive and forced each man to show himself, even as each avoided direct answers to direct questions. Obama progressively moderate, focused on long-term 21st century issues—a somewhat dry and professorial figure whose personal exoticism sufficiently belies the chilly self-possession to make him seem human. He was poised, knowledgeable, fluent and aggressive without being belligerent.
McCain was the sum of his biography, the supply-sider and self-anointed reformer singing the 80s song of “cut waste and everything will fall into place.” He was the cold warrior who speaks in tropes plucked from WWII propaganda films—the guy who would fund little more than wars, entitlements and veterans. He was also somewhat contemptuous; even when prompted he refused to look at Obama. The gesture suggested either fear, or a truly psychotic sort of loathing.
In the first half of the debate that focused on economic issues, Obama was particularly clear and sharp discussing “eight years of failed economic policies,” and dumping on laissez-faire, trickle down economics without using the word “Republican” (Note that McCain did not use the word “Democrat,” either. Both want swing and cross party voters).
McCain improved after the first half hour or so, when the topic shifted to national security and international relations. While he seemed less thoughtful than Obama, less clear and less rational, he seemed more conventionally “tough,” which would appeal to his base and to the toy soldier crowd.
But frankly, I don’t think the old dude did himself any good by regularly mentioning that he’s been around for 30 years and speaking in terms of ‘coming home victorious,’ vs. ‘losing.’ Even to the casual observer, I think it was all very WWII. Very Vietnam. Quite 30-plus years ago. Most Americans seem to understand, if only on a visceral level, that we’re way beyond “winning” vs. “losing” in Iraq—that 21st century conflicts are no longer the zero sum games that old war movies laud. Obama hinted as much, particularly in the first half of the debate that tied economic circumstances to national security. However, I think he could have done himself some favors by overtly hitting the point. McCain hammered on the “naïve,” and “Senator Obama just doesn’t understand.” Obama could have hammered on the “old solutions for new national security problems” meme.
The morning after. Obama shines a little brighter today than he did last night, perhaps for the very reasons stated above. Americans are beginning to understand the complexities of the problems we face, and to realize that the past is not necessarily a guide to the future. The rules have changed. Obama suggested as much. McCain has no clue. It will be interesting to see how the polls read it.